Now even accountants are fighting over democracy in Hong Kong

In a photo from Nov 25, 2019, office workers shout slogans during a lunchtime protest in the Central district in Hong Kong. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Less than a month after Hong Kongers delivered a landslide victory to pro-democracy candidates in district elections, the battle over the city's future is shifting somewhere you might not expect: the staid world of accounting.

Candidates in this year's election for the council of the Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants are being judged largely based on whether they support the city's pro-democracy movement or are seen to align the pro-Beijing establishment.

It's not the first time citywide debates have influenced the institute, which certifies accountants and is responsible for overseeing industry standards. But this year's election is proving especially heated in the wake of protests that have rocked the financial hub for almost six months, according to Rosalind Lee, one of the six pro-democracy candidates.

It underscores the degree to which pro-democracy and pro-government forces are fighting for influence across Hong Kong, even at institutions that ostensibly have little to do with politics. Similar battles have reported to have played out in varying degrees at other professional groups for architects, engineers, doctors and lawyers.

With votes from 44,000 members of the accounting institute due on Monday (Dec 9), the pro-democracy camp has taken to social media to drum up support from younger members of the profession. Pro-Beijing accounting firms and related organizations have been urging staff to support their favored candidates, while officials from China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong have frequented industry banquets and forums.

All of the so-called Big Four global accounting firms - Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young and KPMG - have sent identical lists of pro-establishment candidates to staff, according to notices seen by Bloomberg. All four firms have a big presence in China. EY, Deloitte and KPMG spokespeople declined to comment. PwC wasn't available to comment.

The Chinese government is using various groups in Hong Kong, commonly known as satellite associations, to mobilize support for their preferred candidates, said Benson Wong, a political scientist and former assistant professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.

For some pro-democracy industry practitioners, Beijing's attempts to influence the election look excessive. "It's very bad for the profession, and it's bad for 'one country, two systems,'" said Kenneth Leung, an accountant and lawmaker on the Legislative Council.

"I don't object to the Liaison Office regularly meeting with Hong Kong people from different walks of life to build mutual understanding," said Frankie Yan, a spokesman for financial services at the Professional Commons, a pro-democracy affiliated pressure group. "But it shouldn't influence our decision or give directions. Hong Kong professionals should have their own stance and professional judgment."

The accounting council, which counts Hong Kong Financial Secretary Paul Chan among its former leaders, said in a statement that it's "confident in the integrity" of the election. "We trust and expect that no parties will manipulate the system, as integrity is the bedrock of the CPA profession." The China Liaison Office didn't respond to a fax seeking a comment.

While pro-establishment council members have long dominated the accounting institute, their grip has weakened in recent years. Five from the pro-democracy side were elected last year to the 21-member council after campaigning together for the first time the previous year.

In some ways, the candidates' platforms mirror those of pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong. They're advocating for a one-person, one vote system for the council president - which is currently elected by only council members - and for the institute to take a stance on social issues such as the now withdrawn extradition bill that sparked the city's protests.

This year's vote involves seven seats on the council and pits six pro-democracy candidates against seven from the establishment camp. Four of the pro-democracy candidates are running for re-election, meaning that at most they'll be able to pick up two more seats.

It would be a far cry from the historic shift seen in last month's district council elections, but pro-democracy supporters are pushing for every victory they can get.

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