As Protesters Fill Hong Kong’s Streets, Businesses Watch Quietly With Alarm

As Protesters Fill Hong Kong’s Streets, Businesses Watch Quietly With Alarm

For big business, Hong Kong was supposed to be safer than this.

When the British handed over Hong Kong, a former colony, to China in 1997 under the policy of “one country, two systems,” there was a promise that the territory would continue to operate under relative autonomy. Though Beijing effectively controls the system by which Hong Kong picks its top leaders, the city enjoys wide freedoms of speech and of the press. The government takes a light hand compared with the mainland when it comes to business regulation, and its courts are considered independent and well run.

For decades, major companies parked their Chinese or Asian headquarters in Hong Kong, making the city a major nexus of finance and commerce, though some of that power has ebbed as China grew wealthy in its own right and more companies began to deal with that market directly.

Still, unease has grown in recent months.

Last year, the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong said that over half of its respondents were concerned about the rule of law. Business leaders cited a move by the Hong Kong government to reject a standard request by a journalist to renew his work visa last year as a major setback for Hong Kong’s independence. While the city government declined to disclose a reason, it appeared to be in response to the journalist hosting a talk with Andy Chan, the leader of a small political party that calls on Hong Kong to secede from China.

The trade war between the United States and China also threatens to make Hong Kong a bargaining chip. On Monday, a State Department spokeswoman said that “the continued erosion of the ‘one country, two systems’ framework puts at risk Hong Kong’s long-established special status in international affairs.”

“The extradition bill is worrying because for business it starts to call into question whether there is now a blurred line between politics and business in a city that views itself as a commercial capital that puts business first,” said Tara Joseph, the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.

Yet even as American companies, sometimes privately, have expressed increasing concern about the bill, it was too early to say whether they would pull out of Hong Kong and move operations elsewhere. “People are talking about what this bill could mean and what their possible alternatives could be, but there are no immediate answers,” Ms. Joseph said.

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