Hong Kong ponders protest impact as talks ease tensions

In Photo: Pro-democracy student-protesters in uniform do homework as they occupy areas surrounding the government complex in Hong Kong on Monday. Studentled protests for democratic reforms in Hong Kong shrank but a few hundred demonstrators remained camped out in the streets, vowing to keep up the pressure until the government responds to their demands.

HONG KONG’S  protest leaders held a second round of talks with government officials, easing tensions in the streets as the city began to assess the impact of almost two weeks of demonstrations.

Blockades remained at the three protest sites with groups of people strolling and taking pictures outnumbering demonstrators at the main protest hub in Admiralty. Nearby primary schools that had been shut due to the protests reopened on Tuesday, following the restart of secondary schools on Monday. With blocked roads remaining the main impediment to commerce, companies and politicians began assessing the economic impact of the protests to oppose China’s bid to influence Hong Kong’s 2017 elections. Retailers saw sales plunge during one of the biggest shopping weeks of the year.

“The ongoing protests, even if they end shortly, are likely to have a more visible impact on the city’s fourth-quarter growth, especially on retail and tourism,” Mole Hau, an economist with BNP Paribas SA, wrote in a note to investors. The bulk of the fallout will come from spending curbs during China’s Golden Week, a national holiday in the mainland that ended on Tuesday and overlapped with the peak of the protests.

Sales at major Hong Kong retailer chains have fallen as much as 50 percent during the bulk of the holidays, with those at small- to medium-sized companies plunging as much as 80 percent, the Hong Kong Retail Management Association said on Monday.

Stocks gain

Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng Index gained for a third day, adding 0.5 percent at 2 p.m. The index is still down about 1 percent from its pre-protest level after falling more than 2.6 percent last week.

The protests were triggered by China’s decision that candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive election be vetted by a committee.  Pro-democracy groups say that will guarantee the candidates’ obedience to China. They’re seeking a more open system, as well as the resignation of current leader Leung Chun-ying. The demonstrations attracted as many as 200,000 people last week, organizers said, but crowds have dwindled since student leaders started talks with the government.

The rally sites remained calm on Tuesday with the police making no attempt to take down unmanned barriers. Student leaders have said they’d pull out of the talks aimed at resolving the city’s biggest upheaval since the 1960s if protest sites weren’t protected.

More talks

Protest leaders met with government officials for a second time on Monday night to prepare for more formal talks with Carrie Lam, the city’s second highest-ranking official. The two sides reached agreement on three key principles: There will be several rounds of talks, they will be held on an equal footing, and the government must confirm and implement the outcome of the negotiations, the representatives said. Both sides said they hope to start formal talks before October 12. The government’s representative, Lau Kong-wah, said the discussions were “very, very good.”

Both sides said the formal talks would be held in public. The agenda and location must still be decided upon and more informal talks were held on Tuesday.

‘Not optimistic’

Alex Chow, secretary-general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, said by text message on Tuesday that he’s “not very optimistic” about the chances of the two sides resolving the issue via talks. “If they have proposal, they would have given them out already,” Chow said in a response to questions.  The struggle over the 2017 elections will move to the city’s legislature if talks fail. The students may take further action, he said, declining to disclose potential plans. “There is very little room for negotiations and discussion, but hopefully now that the whole world has seen how peaceful this demonstration has been, I hope the leaders in China will make some concessions,” said Martin Lee, founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party and a supporter of the demonstrations.

As their numbers on the ground dwindled, protesters expressed some frustration. “I’m disappointed that the turnout is low, but this is Hong Kong—people have to make a living and earn money,” said William Tsang, 32, who was putting up posters that read: “We have only one shot, don’t give up.”

Weiyi Lim and Cathy Chan | Bloomberg

Image credits: AP/Wally Santana

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