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Hong Kong billionaire ends silence, urges protesters to think

Protesters occupy the departure hall of the Hong Kong International Airport during a demonstration on August 13, 2019 (PHOTO: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

By Blake Schmidt and Sheryl Tian Tong Lee

(Bloomberg) -- Ten weeks into the protests that have rattled the Asian financial hub to its core, Hong Kong’s billionaires are beginning to break their silence as the costs of escalating violence mount.

Peter Woo, the largest shareholder and former chairman of developer Wheelock & Co., on Monday called on protesters to ease off after they notched a victory by blocking the government’s extradition bill. Sun Hung Kai Properties Ltd., controlled by the city’s wealthiest clan -- the Kwoks -- issued a statement Tuesday condemning the violent protests and calling for rationality.

Woo’s comments, published in the Hong Kong Economic Journal, come as the city’s airport canceled flights after a night of clashes that saw riot cops fire tear gas in a subway station and protesters lash out at undercover officers. Two months of unrest have also weighed on the territory’s stock market, wiping more than $1 billion from Woo’s personal wealth.

“It’s time to think deeply,” Woo wrote. “Going against the extradition bill was the ‘big tree’ of this movement. This one and only big appeal has already been accepted by the government, so this tree has fallen.” Some people are using the issue to “purposely stir up trouble,” he added.

Hong Kong’s unrest has spiraled since the initial anger was sparked by the proposed bill that would have allowed extraditions from the territory to mainland China. As graphic scenes of violence between police and protesters went viral on social media, a turning point came on July 21, when a mob of men attacked protesters with poles at the Yuen Long subway station.

The perceived passivity of the police response to that incident spurred outrage and shifted the protesters’ focus from the extradition bill to law enforcement and the territory’s government more broadly. Weakened by the turmoil, Chief Executive Carrie Lam has refused to resign. She has followed Beijing’s stance not to give in to protesters’ demands, which include an independent inquiry into the use of force by police and the release of detainees, following hundreds of arrests.

Signs of economic fallout from the constant turmoil are starting to show. Flanked by business leaders on Aug. 9, Lam said the aftershocks could hit Hong Kong’s economy like a “tsunami.”

The Real Estate Developers Association of Hong Kong issued a statement Aug. 8 condemning violence and calling for peace. Seventeen members co-signed, including Woo’s Wheelock, as well as Sun Hung Kai and Li Ka-Shing’s Hutchison Properties. Another appeal published in Chinese-language papers was issued on Aug. 10, with co-signers including Kwok family members as well as billionaire Henry Cheng of New World Development.

Woo, Li and Cheng also were among billionaires who opposed plans for a mass sit-in at the city’s financial district in 2014. Cheng said at the time that the protests -- led by an activist group known as Occupy Central With Love and Peace -- could offend Communist Party leaders in Beijing and hurt the company’s jewelry sales in Hong Kong.

Last week, Wheelock’s Wharf Holdings reported falling underlying profit and said demand in Hong Kong weakened due to “travel advisories, economic slowdown, contracting exports/re-exports, falling retail sales, stock market jitters and the threat to employment.”

Sun Hung Kai, Hong Kong’s biggest developer, faced criticism after clashes last month at one of its malls in Sha Tin. The company denied protesters’ allegations that the firm invited the police into New Town Plaza. At the Harbour City center in Tsim Sha Tsui, owned by a unit of Woo’s Wheelock, protesters canceled a plan to swarm the mall in the wake of the New Town Plaza incident after management put up signs asking police not to enter unless a crime was taking place.

Sun Hung Kai issued a statement on Tuesday asking protesters to think about their actions.

“The recent series of violent acts to challenge the rule of law have damaged Hong Kong’s economy and seriously affect citizens’ daily life,” Sun Hung Kai said. The company would support the government and police to restore order, according to the statement.

Aftershocks have spilled over into other industries. Protesters have been circulating a spreadsheet aimed at boycotting brands perceived to be supportive of the establishment, while China has also been exerting economic pressure. Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. staff who join the protests face a ban on flights to the mainland, and the Gianni Versace luxury brand apologized for a shirt that allegedly implied Hong Kong wasn’t part of China.

Housing Crisis

Some development tycoons say Hong Kong’s population has reason for discontent. Lan Kwai Fong Group head Allan Zeman said on Bloomberg TV Monday that urgent solutions are needed to address the territory’s housing crisis.

“A lot of these people, I don’t blame them for marching because they don’t have hope,” said Zeman, whose holdings spanning Hong Kong, mainland China and Thailand include the city’s California tower. “They live with their parents, they don’t see a future for themselves.”

In his column, Woo focused on violence wrought by protesters, but not the actions of the police, who he described as “outnumbered.” Wheelock gets about 38% of its revenue from mainland China, making him one of the most exposed to China among Hong Kong’s property billionaires.

The son of an architect, Shanghai-born Woo moved to Hong Kong as a child amid the city’s postwar construction boom. He studied business at Columbia University and married the daughter of tycoon Yue-kong Pao. Woo later structured his father-in-law’s holdings as Wheelock & Co., which he stepped down from as chairman in 2015. He was replaced by his son Douglas.


© 2019 Bloomberg L.P.