A senior Hong Kong government official has warned that mass demonstrations in the city over the past two months are taking their toll on its economy, as the Asian financial hub was hit by a third consecutive day of protests on Sunday.
Riot police on Sunday evening fired tear gas at protesters near Beijing’s main representative office in the city, a day after they engaged in some of the fiercest clashes yet seen in Hong Kong’s current political crisis in an outlying district of the territory.
“Many retail and catering operators have said that their recent business volume has dropped sharply,” Paul Chan, Hong Kong’s finance secretary, wrote in a blog post on Sunday, adding that the protests had damaged Hong Kong’s international image.
“For foreign companies and tourists, Hong Kong seems to have become turbulent and insecure, affecting their desire to travel, do business and invest in Hong Kong.”
The protests, sparked by an extradition bill that would allow suspects to be sent to China for trial, have precipitated the territory’s worst political crisis since its handover from the UK to China in 1997.
While the government initially backed down by putting the extradition bill on hold, pro-democracy groups have criticised authorities for not agreeing to any further demands such as for an independent inquiry into police conduct.
They come at a sensitive moment for Hong Kong’s economy. The territory, a financial and services centre, is grappling with the fallout from Beijing’s trade war with Washington as well as an economic slowdown in mainland China, which grew at its slowest pace in almost three decades in the second quarter.
Hong Kong’s economy slowed from 1.2 per cent year on year in the fourth quarter of 2018 to 0.6 per cent in the first quarter of 2019.
“I believe people also understand that the longer the duration of the protests, the more significant the impact on SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] . . . will be,” said Mr Chan.
His comments came after protesters estimated at more than 200,000 gathered in Yuen Long, near Hong Kong’s border with China, on Saturday to protest against an attack on demonstrators in the district a week earlier by men wearing white T-shirts.
The men, some of whom were allegedly members of Hong Kong’s criminal triad gangs, used poles to indiscriminately beat protesters returning from demonstrations in the city centre as well as journalists and passers-by in Yuen Long’s commuter railway station. They allegedly fled into the traditional villages in the area.
The protesters, who converged on Yuen Long in their thousands, mounted a siege of one of the main village complexes, engaging in pitched battles with police at the entrances to the community. Thirteen people were arrested for alleged offences including unlawful assembly, possession of offensive weapons and assault.
The arrests did not deter thousands from turning out for Sunday’s protest.
One demonstrator, a 27-year-old banker who identified himself as Don, said protesters were targeting the Beijing’s Liaison Office to show their anger at mainland China’s handling of the territory. “People are discontent and wondering why they [Beijing] are doing such things to our people, they are supporting the police, which are bullying our citizens,” he said.
Another protester, a 40-year-old civil servant who did not wish to be named, said he was marching against what he said was “police brutality”. “The police have clearly abused its power against peaceful protesters,” he said.
A protest by union members of companies working in the aviation sector also brought disruption to Hong Kong’s international airport on Friday.