Hong Kong Chaos Risk Falls as Protest Leader Lowers Hopes

The risk of Hong Kong’s financial district being paralyzed by a mass sit-in is diminishing after a pro-democracy leader said the strategy of threatening civil disobedience had failed to persuade China to make concessions on changes to the city’s leadership election.

The downtown occupation will be smaller, staged on a day when it causes least disruption, and participants won’t resist police officers, Benny Tai Yiu-Ting, founder of Occupy Central with Love and Peace, said in an interview yesterday. Tai said it was clear China won’t backtrack on rules laid down Aug. 31 that include the screening of candidates for the 2017 poll.

China’s uncompromising stance and the pragmatism of Hong Kong people mean “the number of people joining us will not be as big as we expect,” Tai said. It marked a change in tone from his earlier predictions that at least 10,000 would move to the streets as part of an era of civil disobedience.

The remarks prompted Occupy Central to issue a statement late yesterday saying it was “not correct” to say that it has less support from the community and new supporters were joining following China’s decision. The group will “definitely not back down” from its occupation plans, it said.

Any signs of waning support for Occupy Central, which has galvanized disparate pro-democratic groups in the former British colony, will relieve business leaders and officials who had issued predictions that a sit-in would wreak economic havoc and scare away tourists. It also shifts the focus of the democracy debate to opposition lawmakers, who have vowed to defeat the proposed election bill in the legislature.

No Compromise

China has signaled it won’t compromise over its insistence that it vet candidates and blamed a small number of law-breakers for opposing its plans. Li Fei, deputy secretary general of the National People’s Congress, told people in the city on Sept. 1 the proposal is the most concrete step toward implementing universal suffrage in the election.

Hong Kong’s last colonial governor, Chris Patten, wrote in the Financial Times that the city had been promised democracy and the U.K. should speak out to honor treaty obligations it made in 1984 when the transfer to sovereignty to China was mapped out. In Taiwan, ruled separately and claimed by China, President Ma Ying-jeou urged China to open dialogue with Hong Kong people, saying democracy and the rule of law are core values shared by Taiwan people.

‘Minimal Disruption’

Tai reassured people that Occupy Central will go ahead non an unspecified date, while minimizing disruption. When business people “know the details of when we will organize this event, they will know we have no intention to damage the economy of Hong Kong,” he said in a conversation that followed a separate interview with Bloomberg Television.

“Even though I cannot mention the date, but if you look at the calendar, you would know which date would cause the minimal damage to Hong Kong’s economy,” he said.

Hong Kong has public holidays scheduled for Sept. 9 and Oct. 1 and 2, meaning retailers, which stay open, may face more upheaval than banks and brokerages.

“We still don’t know how long and how big the Occupy Central movement will be,” said Dennis Lau, director of sales operations at Chow Sang Sang Holdings International Ltd., Hong Kong’s second-largest jeweler. “What worries us is that it may affect the sales momentum as fewer shoppers will be willing to come to our shops in Central.”

Banks on Alert

Stock brokerages and banks in the city had braced for protests in the coming weeks, ready to enact established contingency programs. Some like Christfund Securities Ltd., a Hong-Kong based brokerage, planned to deploy staff to branches outside the central district.

“If we don’t need to go to the branches that’s great for us,” said Simon Lam, research director at Christfund. “But we still have the system intact to protect our operation just in case.”

Standard Chartered Plc, HSBC Holdings Plc and its Hang Seng Bank Ltd. unit all have continuity plans to maintain their services, spokesmen for the lenders said. HSBC, whose Asian headquarters is meters away from the site of the planned sit-in, has back-up centers and resources for employees to work off-site, said spokesman Gareth Hewett. He declined to comment on Occupy Central’s latest remarks.

If Tai’s prediction of dwindling support is correct, it “will be very positive to the market because it will minimize the uncertainties at the moment,” said Lewis Wan, Hong Kong-based chief investment officer at Pride Investments Group Ltd., which manages about $250 million.

Investor Confidence

Investors haven’t shown much concern over the threat so far this year. The benchmark Hang Seng Index ended little changed yesterday and has gained 6.2 percent this year, led by a 37 percent advance in Hong Kong Exchanges & Clearing Ltd.

Chan Kin-man, another co-founder of Occupy Central, said while they couldn’t estimate the turnout for the sit-in, they plan to continue the long-term fight. The movement will focus on awakening Hong Kong’s citizens to “genuine democracy,” he said.

“Although some pragmatic supporters may leave, new supporters are joining us,” Occupy Central said. “They are angry about the Chinese government’s decision and are firm to show the dignity and willpower of Hong Kongers.”

Some students had vowed to skip school from mid-September in protest.

‘Atomic Bomb’

“We need mass movement to ensure that we have enough bargaining power,” said Alex Chow, a spokesman for the Hong Kong Federation of Students.

Some pan-democrat lawmakers including Emily Lau, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong, has vowed to join in Occupy Central’s action.

“We will still work together,” she said in an interview. “The turnout doesn’t matter that much. I never saw that Occupy Central would bring great harm to the Hong Kong economy. The so-called potential mass disruption was more government propaganda.”

“It’s like the atomic bomb - when deterrence doesn’t work what do you do? Press the red button or not?” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University.

The downsizing of Occupy Central’s ambitions may refocus Hong Kong’s democracy debate from popular protests to how opposition lawmakers vote on the proposed bill in the legislature.

Opposition Dilemma

“The real question is whether the pan-democrats are going to remain united and refuse to endorse” the electoral-reform package, Cabestan said.

To become law, the universal suffrage bill will require two-thirds of the 70-member legislature to support it, meaning the legislation could be halted by the 27 opposition members. If the proposal is rejected, Hong Kong will continue to have its leader picked by a 1,200-member election committee.

The democrats “should take what they’ve been offered and push for more,” said David Zweig, professor of political science at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology. “Every step they can get out of Beijing, they should take it and run with it.”

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