Australian business people in Hong Kong say that the city’s reputation as one of the world’s most important financial hubs has taken a hit from the government’s handling of massive protests this week, but was also at risk if a controversial extradition bill went ahead.an

A record two million Hong Kongers marched through the city on Sunday, angry at chief executive Carrie Lam’s refusal to withdraw a bill to allow extraditions to mainland China, and police treatment of young protesters.

And on Monday morning, the face of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, Joshua Wong, was released early from jail and called for Lam to step down immediately.

Lam issued a statement apologising for her handling of the protests, but did not appear publicly on Monday, as several hundred protesters remained on the street outside government headquarters.

Chairman of the Australian Chamber of Conmerce in Hong Kong, Andrew Macintosh, said the Chamber hoped the debate over the extradition bill could be resolved in a way that respects the “clearly evident concerns of the broader community about preserving established rights and freedoms”.

“Much of Hong Kong’s success as a major international financial city stems from its autonomy, rule of law and independent judiciary, as well as in the freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong people,” he said.

One long-term Australian expat said many foreign businesses had granted leave for local and expat staff to join the marches.

“The events of the past few weeks have highlighted the importance of Hong Kong to the world. The marches appear to get more peaceful because people are marching for the right to peacefully protest,” he said, declining to be named.

[The extradition law] starts to come into the calculus when companies are making investment decisions and basing executives here.

Australian lawyer and author Antony Dapiran

Antony Dapiran, an Australian lawyer in Hong Kong, said: “Without doubt Hong Kong’s global business reputation has been impacted by this.”

He said government and police handling of protests last week were to blame.

“It looks terrible having police fire tear gas and rubber bullets at crowds on the streets in a city like Hong Kong, which people had thought to be one of the world’s safest and most stable cities.”

Dapiran, the author of City of Protest, said there was also longer term damage as the protests had “caused people to turn their minds to the relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland again and to raise anxiety”.

Unlike student protests that brought the city to a standstill in 2014 with calls for democracy, the business community shared concerns about the extradition bill. The law, which has now been suspended, would have allowed a criminal suspect in Hong Kong to be sent to mainland China to face trial under a communist legal system.

“It starts to come into the calculus when companies are making investment decisions and basing executives here,” said Dapiran.

He said the foreign business community relied on Hong Kong’s independent legal system.

“I think people are concerned that there is a threat to Hong Kong’s special status. Often expats tend to live in a little bubble … if you go back a month people hadn’t been paying attention, but a million Hong Kongers on the street a week ago got them to wake up.”

Joshua Wong, who had led the 2014 student movement and was recently jailed for two months for his actions, soon joined protesters outside the Legislative Council building which remained shut.

Wong was released early, having served five weeks.

He thanked the two million people who had marched.

“We demand Carrie Lam step down, retract the extradition bill, and withdraw the labelling of ‘riot’… Stop arresting and charging protesters – otherwise Hong Kong people will fight back more.”

At the march on Sunday, people held banners that read: “You shot us”, while others demanded the government retract its desciption of the students as rioters.

Maggie Leung, 40, marching with her son and husband, said: “What pushes people to stay on the street – and to protest on June 12 – was that she [Lam] didn’t listen to the people.”

Leung grew up in Sydney after her Hong Kong family migrated to Australia in the wake of the former British colony’s return to China in 1997.

However she returned to Hong Kong in 2002 to raise her own family. Leung said she was worried about the future of her son, Bosco, aged 5, and was shocked that the government had tried to change the law this year to allow extradition to mainland China.

Hong Kong signed a free trade agreement with Australia this year.

Article originally appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald on 17 June 2019