Most businesses staying put for now in Hong Kong despite anti-government protests, survey shows

A poll found that 22 per cent of firms with operations in Hong Kong were considering moving capital out and 5 per cent had plans to do so.
A poll found that 22 per cent of firms with operations in Hong Kong were considering moving capital out and 5 per cent had plans to do so.PHOTO: REUTERS

While it may have become the norm for people in Hong Kong to step over broken glass, latte in hand, to get to work, businesses will not relocate from the city on account of the protests alone.

For such a move to take place, there must be other push factors, say most of the 120 businesses polled by the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore and market research company Ipsos.

At the same time, the survey revealed that the ongoing protests have tarnished Hong Kong's reputation and will likely influence decisions on future investment there.

For now, businesses are watching how the situation unfolds.

"If I were a CEO of a corporate, I won't say this is the time to move because of the protests. But if people, the place, or equipment or infrastructure you need to run the business... are significantly impacted negatively, then that would be the premise to relocate. But it will be done gradually," said Ms Allison Cheung, partner of corporate tax advisory services for PwC Singapore.

Ms Cheung and two other business representatives were speaking yesterday about the survey, carried out last month, on how the protests have affected business sentiments of member companies and their longer-term strategies.

The poll found that 22 per cent of firms with operations in Hong Kong were considering moving capital out and 5 per cent had plans to do so. Only 1 per cent planned to move business functions, but 23 per cent were considering that option. When asked where the primary destination would be, more than 90 per cent picked Singapore.

But it is premature for such decisions to be made, said Mr Damien Ryan, Teneo's CEO, Asia-Pacific.

"The capital markets of Hong Kong are among the largest in the world and significantly deeper than Singapore or other markets in the region... Plus, there are professional services firms, 70 international law firms based in Hong Kong and geared to service Chinese companies under common law. That is hard to dislodge.

 
 
 
 

"Further, there is no issue on safety at the moment. The hot spots for protests are confined to the weekends and selective suburbs in Hong Kong," he added.

But Mr Ryan warned of potential flash points in the coming months, including China's national day on Oct 1, a policy address to be given by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam in the second week of October, district council elections in November and the school holidays in December.

While it has become harder for businesses to plan long term, many are already deploying technology to cope, Ms Cheung pointed out.

"If operations are being significantly impacted, they have to find out which critical operations are affected, what are the vulnerabilities and what are the decisions to mitigate and preserve a strong brand image," she said.

Safety is always the biggest issue, Ms Anupama Puranik of executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates said. "I don't think the trigger will be pulled in the next six months. But if things worsen, they may have to make a decision on what to do."

The biggest potential trigger is the "erosion of confidence" over the formula that guarantees freedoms to Hong Kong not enjoyed in China, Mr Ryan said.

"If there's greater evidence that this no longer exists, that would be consideration for businesses on whether to relocate."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2019, with the headline 'Most businesses staying put for now, survey shows'. Print Edition | Subscribe