Hong Kong protests lay minefield for business

October 31, 2014

By Una Galani

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own. 

Hong Kong’s protesters have laid a minefield for big business. The city’s democracy debate is a deeply divisive issue. For companies, keeping quiet is less risky than expressing an opinion guaranteed to irk customers and staff or strain relations with Beijing. It’s even harder for individual employees who must tread a blurry line between free speech and corporate interests.

Before the movement took off a month ago, many business leaders were happy to predict that protests would bring chaos. The Big Four accounting firms even took out joint advertisements in local newspapers warning that disruption could shake Hong Kong’s position as an international financial center.

Now that activists are on the streets, silence is the preferred policy. Those companies that do speak out mostly take a conciliatory tone. Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing has called on protesters to go home. Jack Ma, chairman of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, blamed dissatisfaction with the city’s huge wealth divide, but also warned protesters not to push too hard.

Tycoons recognise that power in Hong Kong lies with Beijing. Expressing any support for a movement which China views as illegal would invite retribution that could jeopardise business. Yet companies are also reluctant to antagonise customers and employees who support civil disobedience. That’s a key difference between the current standoff and, say, making political donations in the United States or opining on important economic questions like the Scottish referendum.

Individual employees, meanwhile, are discovering the limits of free speech. HSBC board member Laura Cha sparked an online petition after she was quoted comparing Hong Kong’s democracy drive to the emancipation of American slaves. Meanwhile, a senior JPMorgan banker whipped up a mini media storm when he was filmed speaking against the protests. Both banks distanced themselves from the views. Rightly or wrongly, high-ranking or high-profile employees are expected to put their companies’ interests first.

It makes sense for companies to speak out on legislation or regulation that affects their business prospects. Hong Kong’s business leaders are under pressure to make it clear where they stand on the protests. Before doing so, though, companies and individuals need to weigh the cost of speaking out.

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