Special Report: The mainland's colonization of the Hong Kong economy

Wed Dec 31, 2014 8:43am EST
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By Clare Baldwin, Yimou Lee and Clare Jim

HONG KONG (Reuters) - When Xi Jinping wanted to deliver a political message to Hong Kong as protesters demanding free elections were threatening to take to the streets, he summoned the tycoons who dominate the city’s economy. The words from the Chinese leader at the September 22 meeting in Beijing were uncompromising but not surprising. He would not entertain any demand for full universal suffrage in Hong Kong, according to two people who attended.

Just six days later, pro-democracy activists made good on their threat, unleashing more than two months of street demonstrations. But while Xi’s message that day in the Great Hall of the People failed to deter the protesters, in speaking directly to the city’s business and professional elite he was showing where Beijing believes real power in Hong Kong resides.

And it is here, in the city’s business sector, that China is inexorably tightening its grip on the former British colony. Even as Beijing struggles to tame Hong Kong politically, Chinese companies are consuming ever bigger chunks of the city’s key sectors including real estate, finance, power, construction and the stock market.

Many of these industries have for decades been dominated by the business titans who attended the meeting with Xi. Men like Li Ka-shing, Asia’s richest man, casino and hospitality billionaire Lui Che-woo and palm oil magnate Robert Kuok. Now they are witnessing a mainland business invasion of the city.

One of the most telling signs of change is the space mainland Chinese companies lease in Central district, the heart of Hong Kong’s financial center. These firms now account for over 50 per cent of new leases signed for offices there, according to a September report from Hong Kong-based brokerage CLSA. That’s up from 20 percent in 2012, the report said.

The trend is the same in all major business districts. Mainland occupancy of 25 key Grade A office buildings, or prime office space, in the districts of Central, Admiralty, Sheung Wan and Wan Chai increased from 13 percent in 2008 to 21 percent earlier this year, according to commercial real estate services firm CBRE.

“We do expect more mainland financial firms moving into Hong Kong,” said Simon Smith, senior director of research and consultancy at real estate services provider Savills Plc in Hong Kong. “They like landmark properties, high-profile buildings. They often like naming rights if it’s available.”


Protesters open their umbrellas, symbols of pro-democracy movement, as they mark exactly one month since they took the streets in Hong Kong's financial central district in this October 28, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/Files