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Are Hong Kong’s Days as a Global Business Hub Over?

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Hong Kong, once hailed as the darling of global capital, is facing an uncertain future as a global finance hub. The implementation of a new security law, Article 23, has raised concerns about the city’s status and its ability to attract foreign investors. This article explores the impact of the security law on Hong Kong’s business landscape, the challenges it poses to foreign capital, and the potential consequences for the city’s economy.

Hong Kong’s status as an international financial and business centre is in doubt like at no point since its return to China in 1997

The Security Law and Its Implications

Article 23, a tough security law, came into effect recently, intensifying existing concerns about Hong Kong’s business environment. While authorities argue that the law will protect the city and ensure stability, critics fear it may curtail dissent and silence opposition through closed-door trials and severe sentences for a range of offenses.

Foreign investors, already wary due to Beijing’s tightening grip and ongoing US-China tensions, are now adopting an “anywhere but China” policy. The perception of Hong Kong as distinct from mainland China, which allowed investors to feel secure in their investments, has been eroded.

The security law’s emphasis on national security and the perceived threat posed by foreign forces raises concerns for foreign capital and businesses operating in Hong Kong. The broad wording of the law and the severe consequences of non-compliance could result in higher compliance costs for businesses, creating additional challenges for companies already navigating a complex regulatory environment.

Hong Kong’s Shifting Business Landscape

Over the past two years, Hong Kong’s business environment has deteriorated significantly. Major deals have become scarce, and companies have been forced to downsize their workforce. Mr. Tse, an employee at a Chinese state-owned bank, revealed that his company had already laid off 10% of its staff in June, with another 5% facing potential job cuts.

The risks associated with Article 23 are still being evaluated, but the potential impact on businesses cannot be ignored. Johannes Hack, President of the German Chamber of Commerce, highlights the broad wording of the law and the severe consequences of breaching it as factors that could increase compliance costs for businesses operating in Hong Kong.

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The Hong Kong government, however, maintains that Article 23 will not affect “normal” businesses and will instead contribute to the city’s advancement from stability to prosperity. It argues that other countries also have security laws, and it is outrageous to single out Hong Kong.

Economic Fallout and Diminished Confidence

Hong Kong’s economy has been reeling from Beijing’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2019 and a harsh zero-Covid policy. The resulting decline in commercial and retail rentals has left office buildings and shopfronts vacant. Furthermore, the city has experienced a significant drop in tourist arrivals, reaching only 60% of pre-pandemic figures.

The economic impact is evident in the performance of the Hang Seng index, Hong Kong’s premier stock market. Since 2019, the index has fallen by more than 40%. In January, India surpassed Hong Kong to become the world’s fourth-largest stock market, and Singapore has emerged as a formidable regional rival in finance.

Global banks have been restructuring their operations in Hong Kong and China, downsizing their workforce due to sluggish growth and plummeting investor confidence. As a result, an exodus of capital and talent has ensued. Former head of Morgan Stanley Asia, for instance, recently declared in a newspaper column that “Hong Kong is over.”

The changing perception of Hong Kong, particularly in terms of security and stability, has raised concerns about the city’s future as an international financial center. While Hong Kong remains distinct from mainland China, the focus on security may blur this distinction in people’s minds, warns Mr. Hack.

The One Country, Two Systems Principle

Since its return to China in 1997, Hong Kong has operated under the principle of “one country, two systems.” Beijing promised that the city would enjoy civil liberties for at least 50 years. However, critics argue that Beijing has reneged on this promise, suppressing pro-democracy protests and imposing a national security law in 2020.

The first attempt to pass a local security law, outlined in the city’s mini constitution, failed in 2003 after half a million people took to the streets in opposition. This time, Article 23 was passed in less than two weeks after being tabled.

Kenneth Chan, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University, points out that under Xi Jinping, China prioritizes national security above Hong Kong’s status as a free society and an international gateway. The arrest of Jimmy Lai, a former media mogul charged under the national security law, has been an awakening for the international community, according to Dr. Chan.

Critics argue that the national security law has eroded personal safety, private property rights, and individual assets in Hong Kong. The trials of pro-democracy protesters have also brought the city’s common law system, which underpins its rule of law, under scrutiny. Although the judiciary is perceived as independent, concerns have been raised about the potential influence of Chief Executive John Lee in selecting judges for national security cases.

Navigating Political Risk and Uncertainty

Businesses operating in Hong Kong, like their counterparts in mainland China, must now adopt additional measures to mitigate political risk. The lack of clarity surrounding the political direction has prompted large companies to hire political consultants to evaluate risks and build political connections. However, these new costs can lead to lower efficiency and profitability.

Despite the challenges, Hong Kong should not be discounted as an international financial hub. Kevin Tsui, chief economist at research firm Orientis, believes that the city can leverage its advantages, such as its simple, low-rate tax system and its status as the only Chinese city without foreign exchange controls. The pegging of the Hong Kong dollar to the US dollar also provides financial stability.

Foreigners still want to do business with China, and even if Hong Kong is now seen as just another Chinese city, it can attract investments. However, confidence in the city has been shaken due to the slowing Chinese economy, burdened by debt and a property market crisis.

The mainland remains Hong Kong’s largest trading partner and the second-largest source of investment. However, a new rule implemented by Beijing requires Chinese companies to obtain official approval to list overseas, making the process more cumbersome. This move reflects China’s desire to have control over these companies, posing challenges for Hong Kong’s position as an international financial center.

Despite these obstacles, Hong Kong’s historical role as a top IPO venue and its unique advantages should not be underestimated. The city can still navigate the changing global dynamics and attract businesses and investments, but it must address the concerns raised by the new security law and adapt to the evolving economic landscape.

In conclusion, the implementation of Article 23 has cast a shadow of uncertainty over Hong Kong’s future as a global business hub. The emphasis on national security and the perceived threat posed by foreign forces raises concerns for foreign capital and businesses operating in the city. Hong Kong’s economy has already suffered from Beijing’s crackdown and a decline in investor confidence. However, the city should not be discounted entirely, as it still possesses unique advantages that can attract businesses and investments. Navigating political risk and uncertainty will be crucial for Hong Kong to maintain its position as an international financial center in the face of evolving global dynamics.

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