Hong Kong’s financial system has not been undermined by the protests and remains stable, the city’s leader told overseas investors and policymakers on Monday.
Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor acknowledged in her speech to the Asian Financial Forum that the city had faced unprecedented challenges over the past two years from the global economic downturn, US-China trade war, political uncertainties and months of anti-government unrest in Hong Kong.
But in a bid to reassure delegates, who included leading finance experts, she said the city was withstanding the pressure and the divisions in society would be resolved.
“If we cannot direct the wind, we can surely adjust our sails,” Lam said at the opening of the two-day forum in Wan Chai, which is attended by thousands of global investors and policymakers.
She added the “strengths and resilience” of the city’s financial systems “have not been undermined despite [the fact] we have experienced considerable unrest and challenges in recent months”.
“Through the concerted efforts of the government and the people of Hong Kong, I am confident that we will bridge our divide,” Lam said.
The annual forum, co-organised by the Hong Kong government and the Trade Development Council, gathered more than 100 financial experts to examine the global economic landscape in forums and panel discussions at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.
At one of the plenary sessions at the forum, hundreds of participants were asked to vote on what would be the major challenge for global growth this year.
Thirty-nine per cent chose trade tensions between China and the United States, while 34 per cent saw intensifying geopolitical risks as the biggest obstacle.
Lam said amid “large and alarming” geopolitical concerns, the administration appreciated the city’s unique role in fast-growing Asia, and had been “busy making the most of Hong Kong’s manifold advantages” and forging connections between businesses, investors and financial markets.
She added Asian economies would this year surpass the rest of the world combined for the first time in purchasing power, which she described as “a quantum leap” on a few decades ago.
The embattled chief executive said financial technology would remain as one of the high priority sectors.
Last year the government issued eight virtual banking licences and two virtual insurer licences, Lam added, while an instant payment system launched in 2018 now handled transactions totalling HK$2,385 million (US$307 milion) every day.
The protests started in June with a peaceful mass rally against the now-withdrawn extradition bill, but have escalated into a wider anti-government movement fuelled by allegations of police brutality and the campaign for more democracy, with hard-core elements resorting to violence.
Despite Lam’s reassurances, Mohamed Hasan, business development manager of India-based company Transvision Shipping, said it would not be easy to rebuild business confidence dampened by the months long anti-government protests, especially with their business partners in mainland China, who had been reluctant to visit the company’s Hong Kong office.
He said: “Until last week, our Chinese agents would still rather go to Macau or Shenzhen but not Hong Kong for meetings. They don’t feel safe here.
“How can we make our business flourish even when transport can sometimes be a problem [when protests take place]?” he said, adding he hoped the government would provide constructive political solutions to end the turmoil.
Saliba Sassine, managing director of BlueMount Capital, an Australian company which provides advisory services to Chinese companies, said while Hong Kong’s political unrest triggered anxiety in many sectors, he remained positive for the city’s important role in connecting them to mainland investors.
Sassine said the protests were an "internal matter and would become manageable, adding: "We will have to be patient. We still count on Hong Kong to connect us to the huge China market in long run.”