Walking a fine line as business shrinks

Editorial | Mary Ma 14 Aug 2019

The Real Estate Developers Association of Hong Kong has fired off a burst of statements lately. Its condemnation of the anti-extradition bill protests yesterday, prominently advertised in some local newspapers, was the third of its kind.

And the group is adopting a higher and higher profile.

You have to be a super-rich tycoon to qualify to become a member of the exclusive association and, understandably, it would be extremely difficult - or time consuming - to get all of them to come together to arrive at some kind of a consensus.

The association's statement on the sale of small flats by auction not that long ago was a typical example. Members had to make a tremendous effort to produce a common position, and they managed to do so only after a period of soul searching.

At the start of the protests, the developers were mostly silent because, firstly, some of them disagreed with the extradition bill and, secondly, it was typical of businessmen to focus on making money and avoid confrontational politics.

The developers weren't the only one displaying a low profile at the beginning. Support for the administration from the pro-establishment camp - including lawmakers in the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong and the Federation of Trade Unions - was also lukewarm and limited to paying lip service.

Clearly, those monitoring the crisis from Zhongnanhai were less than enthused. Otherwise, they wouldn't have summoned, at short notice, hundreds of these opinion leaders to Shenzhen for a gathering with Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office director Zhang Xiaoming.

The developers had probably angered Beijing policymakers more than the political patriots since the former had directed their shopping malls to turn police away at the doors.

If five-star mall Pacific Place, owned by the Swire Group, and the prestigious IFC, held by a consortium including Henderson Land, were among the first to tell armed riot police to stay clear of the luxury properties, Harbour City, under Wharf Holdings, was among others following suit. They were totally frightened by the violent clashes in July inside Sun Hung Kai Properties' New Town Plaza.

The motives of these decisions to close the doors to police were apolitical: they were simply trying to protect the properties from possible heavy damage.

However, as the landlords attempted to walk a fine line, they were viewed as being not patriotic enough by Beijing.

The room for the local business sector to maneuver to maintain a balance between the masses and the authorities is clearly shrinking more quickly than anticipated, after business leaders were dragooned into unequivocally supporting Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and the police.

The battering of Cathay Pacific Airways by the mainland's Civil Aviation Administration can't be more frightening, showing how easily a flagship company can fall afoul of the powers-that-be for failing to toe the official stance.

The misfortune befalling Cathay could readily spread to others if they don't fall into line forthwith.

In these turbulent times, political correctness takes precedence over normal commercial considerations.

The outbreak of anti-fugitive bill protests has gravely increased the political risks of doing business in Hong Kong.


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