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US businesspeople 'feel less safe' with Hong Kong security law

Survey by Chamber of Commerce comes amid growing fear of voicing criticism

Pro-Beijing demonstrators, who support the new national security law, protest in front of the U.S. Consulate General in Hong Kong on July 2. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

HONG KONG -- American companies operating in Hong Kong believe that the city's new national security law is bad for business, with a majority of respondents to a new survey saying they feel less safe personally.

No companies or individual respondents were identified in the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong member survey, published Monday against a background of heightened fear of voicing criticism of the law or the government as well as growing tensions between Washington and Beijing. Despite their worries, most companies in the survey said they will stay put in Hong Kong.

Under the law, Beijing has dispatched officials to set up and run a new security agency in Hong Kong unconstrained by existing legislation and charged with ending months of anti-government protests.

The law specifically targets the crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, but its broad and vague terms have spurred worry about its scope. Last week, U.S. internet companies, including Facebook and Google, announced they would suspend processing of Hong Kong government requests for user data pending review of the law.

Some 63.9% of the survey's 183 respondents, polled July 6-9, said the national security law, or NSL, will have a negative impact on business prospects in Hong Kong. The respondents represent about 15% of the chamber's membership.

A plurality of respondents said the law will be negative for their own businesses and agreed with the notion that the prospect of those arrested under the law being extradited to mainland China "is a game changer for Hong Kong as a financial center."

"The potential for arbitrary application of the NSL is frightening to many, and Hong Kong's judiciary is powerless to protect the people and rule of law," said one anonymous respondent in comments released by AmCham. "Some of our employees have already voted with their feet to leave for safer countries. Many others are very concerned and considering their options."

Indeed, the top concerns identified by respondents were "ambiguity in scope and enforcement of the law" and fear for the independence of Hong Kong's judiciary.

"Will my staff members be taken away because of what they posted on social media platforms?" one commented. "Will I still be able to read actual news or just Chinese propaganda?"

However, chamber members were quite split about the law, with a significant minority seeing it as positive for business and Hong Kong overall.

"Instability from local violent protests would [be] a much bigger risk than any instability that the law or the international reaction to it might conceivably cause," one said. "If anything, the law should lead to greater stability and economic predictability now that the violence can be stopped."

Another commented: "Citizens who do not break any law and just live their lives as usual should not have any concern over the NSL which makes Hong Kong a safer place to live and do business."

Worried or not, AmCham members are largely staying put, with close to two-thirds of respondents saying they are taking a "wait and see" approach and not looking at moving operations or assets out of Hong Kong. Nearly half of the respondents neither have a contingency plan for worsened conditions nor are working on one.

"For all the deserved negativity regarding the law and its effect on Hong Kong business and society, from a purely business standpoint, right now Hong Kong is still well above Singapore, Bangkok, Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, or certainly anywhere on the mainland for ease of doing business," one respondent said.

Added another, "Hong Kong still has a ways to drop before it gets to No. 2 in Asia as a place to do business. This law though brings it much, much closer."

While AmCham itself was an early critic of a bill proposed last year that would have allowed for extraditions to mainland China and which sparked the initial mass protests in June 2019, the chamber, like other groups, has been subdued in its comments since the security law's enactment.

On July 2, it said it had "hope [the law] will not impact the dynamism and benefits of this great city" and would "seek further clarity on how the law will be interpreted and implemented."

In publishing Monday's survey, the group said, "This survey is not intended to be a scientific instrument, but rather a temperature test of members' sentiments."

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