Hong Kong's weak leaders threaten business confidence

Questions are intensifying about the long-term impact of the protests on business confidence in Hong Kong but so far the administration does not appear to have any strategy to resolve the current crisis beyond simply hoping it all goes away.

As protests in Hong Kong move into their third week with no end in sight, citizens are getting used to a "new normal".

Longer commutes cause some grumbles, but Hong Kongers are also enjoying the new public open spaces and cleaner air, with office-workers strolling at lunchtime down car-free streets and picnicking on the traffic barriers.

Over the weekend a tent city sprang up at the main Admiralty protest site as thousands settled in for what became a weekend resembling nothing so much as an outdoor community arts festival. As well as the growing collection of protest art installations, crowds were entertained by musicians, dance performances, free portrait sketching, movie screenings and origami lessons. After weeks of exhorting participants that this protest was a serious matter and "not a carnival", student organisers on Sunday finally relented and published a program for the coming days' activities, including guest speakers and a live band.

Carpenters have been helping to build increasingly sophisticated staircases over the cement road barriers, as well as rows of desks for the now-famous "homework zone". As the infrastructure in the stretch of occupied 8-lane highway that has now been dubbed "Umbrella Square" becomes more entrenched by the day, one would not be too surprised if by this time next week the makeshift "shower" tents have been plumbed in with hot and cold running water.

Behind this festive atmosphere, however, questions are intensifying about the long-term impact of the protests on business confidence in Hong Kong.

If business confidence is threatened, it will not be the fault of the protests themselves. Indeed, Financial Secretary John Tsang said in a speech a few days ago that despite the protests "the markets are operating smoothly and we have not encountered any difficulty in our trading activities", while immigration department statistics showed tourist arrivals have been unaffected.

Rather, the threat to confidence arises because the past few weeks have exposed a weak and incompetent government, as well as deep fissures in the "one country, two systems" foundation upon which Hong Kong stands.

After an initial clearance operation that the police have now publicly acknowledged was a failure, the Hong Kong police force has become the butt of online jokes, with the spokesperson at their daily four o'clock press conferences dubbed "4pm Hui Sir" and gaining minor celebrity status with his catch phrase "I now recap in English". While the online humour may not harm Hong Kong's image, the impression that the police force are leaving policing to triad gangs certainly will. Those allegations have still not been seriously investigated or addressed, beyond the police issuing flat denials.

Chief Executive CY Leung remains under a cloud following allegations relating to payments made to him by Australian company UGL raised in a report by Fairfax journalists last week. Leung has done little to address the allegations beyond saying in a pre-recorded television interview on Sunday that he felt there was no conflict of interest and no legal or ethical issues in connection with the payments. Hong Kong, Australian and UK regulators are said to be considering whether to open formal investigations. A leader in any Western democracy in a similar position would generally be expected to resign, or at least stand aside until any investigation cleared their name. Leung shows no inclination to do so, although it would seem untenable for him to retain any authority - or maintain Hong Kong's reputation for impartial and transparent government - in the current circumstances.

Perhaps of most concern, the administration does not appear to have any strategy to resolve the current crisis beyond simply hoping it all goes away. The government failed to take any decisive action to clear the protests, and at this stage any such action would likely require use of force to a level that would be unacceptable to the Hong Kong or international community. The government is also refusing to negotiate with the protest leaders and failing to engage meaningfully on issues which are clearly of great community concern. Indeed, Leung and his chief secretary Carrie Lam have both left town to attend an investment conference in Guangzhou.

The ongoing government inaction is stoking further frustration in certain segments of the community and leaving a vacuum, which threatens to be filled by vigilantism. There have been numerous cases of people attempting to take matters into their own hands over the past week, and pro-Beijing groups have announced they will attempt to clear protesters forcefully on Tuesday. If continuing government inaction allows these vigilante incidents to continue or worsen, the consequences would be even more damaging to Hong Kong's image and business confidence.

Underlying these protests is a sense among Hong Kong people that their way of life is under threat - a way of life that they see as distinctly different from that of the "one country" to which they are told they belong. This has raised questions about the tenability of governing two such different "systems" under the same, ultimately authoritarian, style of governance, which the currently-disputed NPC Decision - and the Chief Executive election method it mandates - seeks to impose upon Hong Kong.

If Hong Kong is to salvage business confidence, the time has come for the government to stop blaming the protesters, and to find an alternative to its policy of "wishful thinking" that they will just lose interest and go home. The government must engage and communicate with the people, formulate a policy, and take action.  Most importantly, if they are to preserve business confidence, any action the government does take must also show that "one country, two systems" can continue to work and thrive. Simply removing the protesters by force will fail to achieve that aim. They must take the difficult step of ceasing to merely administrate and actually starting to govern.

Antony Dapiran is a Hong Kong-based international lawyer.

 

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