Hong Kong protests get an unlikely ally – accountants

HRM Asia’s Two Cents column returns as senior writer Justin Harper takes a look behind the ongoing unrest in HK
By: | August 29, 2019
Topics: Features | Two Cents

Asia has been making headlines across the globe for all the wrong reasons as protestors in Hong Kong continue to battle with authorities over a controversial extradition bill. Many thought the civil unrest would have died down by now but it continues to rumble on, often violently. Last weekend, the former British colony saw accountants take to the streets in protest. Yes you read that right – accountants. While they may have a reputation for being boring middle-aged men who sit behind a desk all day number-crunching, they ripped off their suits and picked up their placards instead. Well not exactly.

“It’s time for us to stage a really civilized and calm march in the central business district to show that we’re still not happy with how the whole issue has been handled, and (the) government has to respond positively to the demands of the people,” said Hong Kong legislator Kenneth Leung. While a ‘’civilized and calm march’’ is not quite the stuff of revolutions, one still has to admire the accountants for taking a stand, especially in this current climate of fear spreading across Hong Kong. A polite and respectful march is still better than doing nothing at all, and some might argue the best way to protest.

But why are accountants specifically aggrieved by the extradition bill (which is currently suspended)? The reason is that accountants often have to cross over to mainland China for work, said Leung. The proposed extradition bill, if it ever became law, would allow fugitives to be handed over to authorities in mainland China. Accounting firms generate between 10% and 15% of their revenue from doing business in mainland China, so tensions between Hong Kong and China could pose a threat to their earnings, argued Leung.

Hong Kong protesters released their five demands in July. The demands include full withdrawal from the proposed bill that would allow Hong Kong people to be extradited to mainland China. Retract any characterization of the movement as a “riot”. Drop all charges against anti-extradition protesters. Set up an independent committee to investigate the use of force by Hong Kong police. Universal suffrage in elections for the city’s chief executive officer and legislature by 2020. That’s quite a long wish list.

There have been many losers from the Hong Kong turmoil, including its economy which is suffering financially from the political unrest and uncertainty from investors and employers. But where there are losers, there are also winners. In this case they are the neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia who could inadvertently gain from the flight of capital, businesses and jobs out of Hong Kong. In particular, fellow Asian financial hub and rival Singapore (which has a reputation for being very safe and free from political unrest) could see businesses choose the city state over Hong Kong. There has even been talk this week of some IPOs being rerouted to Singapore, as a result of the pro-democracy demonstrations. Even the Chinese tech giant Alibaba has reportedly delayed its mega US$15 billion Hong Kong listing until the dust (or rather tear gas) settles. And this is no ordinary IPO. It is potentially the world’s biggest equity deal this year. If Singapore could snag Alibaba’s IPO instead, that would really cause some tension.