Fugitive woes come home to roost

Editorial | Mary Ma 13 Jun 2019

If Goldin Financial Holdings' decision to give up a prime commercial site in Kai Tak was stunning, the violent turn in the protests against the extradition bill was just as distressing and alarming.

It's all deja vu. The demonstrations were quickly dubbed Occupy 2.0 or even worse, a combination of Occupy Central and Mong Kok riot, when protesters - mostly young people - stormed across police barricades to block main roads in the city.

Hardcore protesters seemed to have learned from past events and, instead of assembling peacefully as their peers did during the 2014 Occupy protest, they charged toward the Legislative Council to demand the extradition bill be withdrawn.

Not much has changed between now and then. After years of tug of war in democratic development and a continuous degradation of our living environment, the younger generations have become militant.

Government officials may have predicted opposition or protests, but not violence as such.

After all the condemnable exchanges of metal bars, tear gas and bean bag rounds, I fear the window for the administration to back down at the last minute is fast closing. Not only are Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and security chief John Lee Ka-chiu cornered, so are the policymakers monitoring the situation from Beijing.

How will Beijing leaders react to the biggest crisis facing the SAR since the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy protests? More likely than not, Beijing will tighten its grip further after the latest crisis.

Worse still, the cycle may viciously repeat itself.

In this light, Goldin Financial's extraordinary decision to abandon the Kai Tak site couldn't have been made at a more sensitive time. Its decision by a six-to-two vote to relinquish a site it had bagged for HK$11.1 billion via an offshore subsidiary was so unusual as to be unheard of in the local property sector.

Besides losing a HK$25 million deposit, the company should be safe from financial penalties.

Although the subsidiary is obliged to compensate the SAR government for any shortfalls should the site be sold for less in future, the owners may technically liquidate the offshore entity to escape the contractual obligations.

That said, Goldin's decision remains curious in several aspects. Independent non-executive director and lawmaker Abraham Shek Lai-him, who requested the special board meeting, is known to have strong reservations about the extradition bill.

Though all pro-Beijing lawmakers have been ordered to fall in line to support the bill, members from the business sector are still gravely concerned about the proposed legislation.

Announcing ahead of the legislative proceeding that it's giving up the Kai Tak site due to concerns over social conflicts and economic uncertainty, a "commercial decision" became a political bombshell.

Or it may be purely financial. As the group's subsidiary had until June 11 to complete the deal, it would have had to pay the balance of the purchase price. But Goldin chairman Pan Sutong denied claims the firm abandoned the project because it could not raise enough capital, and insisted its finances are just fine.

Perhaps there could be other reasons. The case isn't as simple as it appears.

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