Will Hong Kong face its worst civil disturbance in 47 years?
That is the question a prominent businessman is asking as the Occupy Central group gears up for a huge demonstration next month in the city’s financial nerve center.
Robert Dorfman, chairman of toy and timepiece manufacturer Herald Holdings (00114.HK), said he fears the protest movement could be hijacked by radical elements and pose a threat to social order, making Hong Kong potentially deal with its biggest civil crisis since 1967.
What is important is that the Occupy Central protest is held in a rational and peaceful manner as the organizers have promised, Dorfman said, warning that if things go otherwise it will bring back memories of the events 47 years ago.
A labor dispute in May 1967 triggered months of leftist protests in Hong Kong, prompting the then colonial government to resort to heavy force to restore order. There were several casualties, including dozens of deaths, in what is now acknowledged as the city’s worst-ever rioting.
It is another matter, however, that those protests are widely believed to have prompted the British government to care more for the underprivileged and the working class in the city.
“In 1967, I was a 13-year-old in Hong Kong. That year, we had riots in the city. And very quickly, the stock market collapsed, property prices collapsed, and quite a few people who had the ability to emigrate and move overseas did so,” Dorfman told EJ Insight.
The effects of any untoward turbulence can be difficult to recover from, he said, noting that it took Hong Kong quite a while to reestablish itself after the 1967 riots.
On May 6, 1967, 21 people were arrested during a clash with police outside a factory in San Po Kong, triggering a chain of events. Protests intensified in the second half of that year, with the leftist camp staging strikes and some extremists planting bombs on the streets.
According to government figures, the riots claimed 51 lives. By end-December 1967, more than 1,900 people were convicted for various crimes.
Dorfman stressed that if there is political instability in Hong Kong, the city could lose some of the businesses who have their headquarters here, which in turn means loss of jobs and opportunities for young people.
The businessman said he has begun to worry about Occupy Central due to the disturbing behavior of some political activists in the city. Lawmakers throwing things and engaging in shouting matches in the legislative council, and disruptive actions of some activists at public events, are a cause for concern, he said.
“I think there is an element in Hong Kong that is not simply satisfied with conversation, dialogue or discussion.
“What I am worried about is the possibility of Occupy Central getting hijacked by the radical elements, making it turn violent,” Dorfman said.
That said, if activists only block some streets temporarily and carry their protest in a peaceful manner, it will not cost businesses a lot, he said.
If the organizers stick to their promises and engage in orderly conduct, the economic impact “will be somewhat limited,” according to Dorfman.
“I think most businesses today have either made contingency plans or will operate electronically on a sufficient scale… So, I don’t think there will be a devastating economic impact,” he said.
Authorities are preparing to deploy thousands of policemen to deal with potential threats and chaos during an Occupy Central rally on July 1, which marks the 17th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule.
There are fears that activists may try to occupy the government headquarters or the Legislative Council building, copying the recent tactics of student demonstrators in Taiwan.
The businessman said he thinks it’s good for the central government to set the record straight on Hong Kong in the white paper, because it gives Hong Kong some clarity as to what Beijing considers acceptable and not acceptable.
The white paper, which was released by the State Council last week, has caused uproar in Hong Kong as it was the first official document that laid out in black and white that the central government has “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong.
Dorfman said he will not join the civil referendum held by Occupy Central organizers this weekend to vote on one of the three proposals to elect the city’s chief executive in 2017. The referendum is scheduled to take place from Friday to Sunday.
“I don’t really see it as having much value… Realistically speaking, we have to accept the fact that China is the sovereign power. Therefore, we have to operate within the criteria that China sets down and in accordance with Basic Law,” he said.
“I hope that the day will come when we have full universal suffrage and when a chief executive can be elected from any political camp,” Dorfman said. “But I understand that it may take time to reach that ultimate goal.”
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