July 19, 2019 / 5:39 AM / 5 months ago

Breakingviews - Hong Kong demonstrators risk muddling the message

Riot police use pepper spray to disperse pro-democracy activists inside a mall after a march at Sha Tin District of East New Territories, Hong Kong, China July 14, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - Hong Kong’s tycoons know scale can come at the cost of coherence. Protests in the city initially focused on the need to stop extraditions to the mainland; but the movement has broadened, and recent rallies have turned violent. That raises risks for investors and businesses, already suffering collateral damage. What happens next is harder to predict too.

Demonstrations have evolved fast since early June, spreading far beyond a few central districts. Technology like encrypted apps, used to broadcast rallying calls, has helped. But after Chief Executive Carrie Lam declared the controversial bill dead last week, leaderless protesters have increasingly pursued different aims, and tactics.

The Civil Human Rights Front, which helps organise marches, lists five more demands, including Lam’s resignation and a formal withdrawal of the bill. Individual protesters, though, cite grievances ranging from border traders to unruly buskers. This week elderly demonstrators took to the streets, some in wheelchairs. The scope and scale of complaints will only continue to grow in a city that consistently ranks among the world’s most unaffordable.

Business is already on the front line. On Sunday, demonstrators and police clashed inside a suburban shopping mall owned by the $50 billion Sun Hung Kai Properties, leaving bloodstains on gleaming floors. The pictures shocked a usually orderly city, and the building’s owner. Hong Kong retailers warned July and August sales could drop by double digits from a year earlier as shoppers and tourists shun the city, and names like Richemont and watchmaker Swatch say they are already feeling the pain. Everyday brands have to navigate reputational impact too: Japan’s Pocari Sweat soft drinks faced a backlash after it withdrew advertising from a television channel seen to be opposing the protest.

As the incipient movement fans out into Hong Kong’s outer reaches, and with no end in sight before local polls in November, all those hazards increase. The government has been unwilling to provide a focus point, like an inquiry into the grievances. Without an effort to provide their own, protesters risk alienating influential allies that backed the extradition cause, like the business lobby group, as well as moderate voices. None of this will help already unimpressive economic growth, or the chance for change.

Breakingviews

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