Australians with business interests in Hong Kong are so concerned with the growing unrest, they’re planning exit strategies as violence in the financial hub continues to escalate.
On Wednesday Carrie Lam extended an olive branch to protesters by announcing the controversial extradition bill will be withdrawn.
The withdrawal of the bill, which sparked the protests three months ago and would have allowed Hong Kong citizens to be sent to mainland China to face trial, is one of five demands made by the pro-democracy protesters.
The government’s move is unlikely to satisfy or pacify the protesters, who say they won’t give up fighting for their freedoms.
Rob Watt, who lives in Australia but runs two businesses out of the Asian city and visits each month, said the economic effect had been felt.
“If you look at my fashion business, stuff is being held in China and it’s delaying production orders. It’s having an economic effect,” he told The New Daily.
“The effect that it’s having is starting to becoming frustrating from a business point of view, even if you agree with the people protesting.”
He said businesses across the city had been putting exit plans in place if the unrest escalates.
“For the people who own a business, the contingency plan is trying to sell your business essentially. If people have got a property, that gets difficult because (the market) is dipping,” he said.
“If you’re trying to get out, you’re going to take a hit or you’re unlikely to be able to do it.”
There are around 600 Australian-owned businesses operating in Hong Kong and more than 100,000 expats living in the city.
Monitoring the situation
Big Australian brands with outlets or chains in the country are monitoring the situation daily to make sure their staff are kept safe and their revenue isn’t threatened.
The city kept its position as the jewel in the crown of the Asian market during the Global Finical Crisis and the 2014 Occupy democracy protests.
But many expats are questioning if it can weather this storm.
The protests have taken a violent turn in recent weeks, with the streets that millions of people walked down peacefully now lit with fires and splattered with blood.
Police have been filmed beating protesters, using tear gas liberally and spraying them with ultra-violent dye. In some cases, protesters have hit back.
Sam Brown, who runs the largest private recruitment company in Hong Kong, said people were looking at other options.
“I think it’s on a day-to-day level. It’s business as usual but there’s an overriding sentiment of nervousness because it is impacting everyday work,” Mr Brown said.
“With the escalating violence, people have a genuine worry where they’re going to be at night or on the weekend. Hong Kong used to be considered a safe city.”
Mr Brown employs almost 50 people, many of whom are locals and will take work off to join the protests. He said while he encouraged their right to freedom of speech, he noticed their absence.
“It’s certainly started to impact our clients as well. About a dozen contracts have been put on hold while they wait to see what the impact is.”
Expats first to leave
While many restaurants and retail stores have been affected, if you’re out of the protests areas, it’s business as usual, says Alex Malouf who owns and runs three restaurants in the city.
“We’ve only been affected when protests are in the vicinity,” he said.
“As they are more reliant on neighbourhood clientele rather than tourists, we haven’t been overly affected as of yet.
“However if it continues our expat regulars will be the first to leave, which will make an impact.”
It’s not just those operating businesses there – the federal also has concerns about Hong Kong’s safety.
On Thursday it was revealed that Canberra was threatening to delay a free trade agreement with Hong Kong until there was peace in the city.
For its part, the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong has downplayed the protest in recent weeks.
“While the unrest was certainly unsettling, we are not aware of any members specifically deciding to leave Hong Kong as a result,” a spokesperson said.
“For many of our members, it is business as usual, despite the images you see in Australia.”
The situation has become increasingly divided.
On Wednesday, a police conference described the protesters as “a disease spreading across the city and poisoning the minds of young people”.
But for many, the rejecting of the federal government’s peace offering is about securing a free future.
“This is not only about the extradition bill any more,” one 24-year-old protester told The New Daily.
“With the escalation of things, more corrupted things got exposed and we need to resist them, like police brutality and the humanitarian disaster they made – like not allowing first aid to treat the hurt protesters.
“If we were still in June then yeah maybe most of the protesters would be happy. But things have escalated beyond any expectation in these three months.”
Another, a 22-year-old tattooist, said that not only would they keep protesting, but it had only hardened their resolve.
“I think Beijing pushing this bill is a big mistake for waking us up to fight,” the tattooist said. “I think there will more and more people come out to protest.
“We don’t trust her [Ms Lam] at all. And we don’t really care the bill [has been] withdrawn or died. There is a more serious problem of Hong Kong, police and government. This bill just a piece of cake.”