Hong Kong Police, Protesters Clash—and Tourists Don't Mind

Police clash with a group of pro-democracy protesters near the government headquarters in Hong Kong on Dec. 1 Photograph by Dale De La Rey/AFP via Getty Images

Since the start of the Occupy protests in late September, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has had a red line: Pesky students and other malcontents dissatisfied with China’s ultimatum regarding democratic elections could sit in the streets of Causeway Bay and Mong Kok, two of the city’s busiest neighborhoods. They could even camp out on a major thoroughfare in the Admiralty district near Leung’s office. But they shouldn’t blockade the government complex itself and stop bureaucrats from reaching their desks.

So no wonder the police today responded forcefully when pro-democracy protesters dared to impede access to the government offices in Tamar (the area near the waterfront named after a former Royal Navy ship). With the Occupy supporters blocking other roads leading to the Central Government Offices, Lung Wo Road is the building’s last lifeline to the rest of the world—and today occupiers tried to close Lung Wo, too, and surround the building. “We must exert pressure on the authorities, and the government headquarters is the symbol of central power,” Alex Chow, secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, told reporters last night. “By surrounding the headquarters, we are paralyzing its operations.”

That led to clashes as police armed with batons, pepper spray, and water hoses battled protesters. “As the access roads leading to the Central Government Offices (CGO), Tamar are now blocked, the Administration Wing announced that the CGO will be temporarily closed this morning,” the Hong Kong government announced on its website. “All visits to the CGO in the morning will be postponed or cancelled.”

For Hong Kong’s bureaucrats, the inconvenience didn’t last too long. The police won the battle for Lung Wo Road and by midmorning traffic was flowing again. The status quo ante once again prevails, with the students and their supporters pitching their tents in other streets and Leung’s government no closer to convincing them to leave. In a statement this afternoon, Leung warned that people “should not mistake the Police force’s tolerance for being weak or incapable of doing its job.”

As the protests continue, Hong Kong’s top financial official is warning the occupiers are hurting the economy. Financial Secretary John Tsang told reporters today he’s not optimistic about growth in the final quarter of the year and called the economic impact of Occupy Central “worrying.” Tsang did point out that “concrete data is not out yet” to support such arguments, but he assured reporters they only needed to be patient.

Still, Hong Kong people seem to be more hopeful about the prospects for the city’s economy. On Friday, a new poll of consumer confidence showed an upswing in November. According to Australia and New Zealand Bank and Roy Morgan Research, the index of Hong Kong consumer confidence rose 2.7 points to 131.2, erasing losses in September and October as the conflict between the activists and the government intensified. A total of 38 percent of respondents said their families were “better off” financially than a year earlier, up seven percentage points from October. Only 9 percent said they were worse off, down two percentage points.

Fueling the optimism was the opening of two-way trading between the Hong Kong and Shanghai stock exchanges, according to ANZ and Roy Morgan Research. The “stock connect” shows the central government isn’t backing away from Hong Kong, despite the protests, said ANZ senior economist Raymond Yeung. The start of the “Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect” last month “seems to have provided a timely reassurance in the outlook of households—particularly regarding their personal finances,” he said in a statement. “Given the community’s large exposure to stock and property markets, preserving household wealth is crucial to upholding consumer sentiment.”

Despite predictions that the sky would fall if the occupation continued, mainland tourists don’t seem to be frightened by the Umbrella Movement. Even as pro-democracy protesters have been sitting in some of the busiest shopping districts in town, Chinese tourists are still flocking to the former British colony. The number of visitor arrivals in October jumped 12.6 percent year-on-year to 5.21 million people, Hong Kong’s Tourism Board announced on Friday. And the number of mainland visitors? Up 18.3 percent.

In another sign of the economy’s resilience, this afternoon the government announced retail sales volume in October rose 4.3 percent compared with a year earlier, much better than the 2.5 percent median estimate of economists surveyed by Bloomberg.

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