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Speech by FS at Hong Kong Association luncheon in London (English only) (with photo)

     Following is the speech by the Financial Secretary, Mr John C Tsang, at the Hong Kong Association luncheon in London today (October 31, London time):

Baroness Dunn, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

     Good afternoon. Thank you so much for the opportunity of speaking with you today.

     You will have seen Hong Kong in the news a lot more than usual in the last few weeks.  Newspapers, TV stations and news agencies here in the UK, and around the world, have been giving us star billing, thanks to the protests that have taken over our streets.

     Because of the continuing concerns, the Chief Executive has made the difficult decision to remain in Hong Kong to deal with the issue at hand. He is, of course, disappointed that he could not be here with you all today, or at the TDC's (Trade Development Council) gala dinner last night. But the matter requires his presence and personal attention in Hong Kong in working towards a peaceful and acceptable resolution.

     So, it seems that you're stuck with me today íV for the second year in a row.

     Many of you have long and deep links with Hong Kong. I see a lot of familiar faces here today íV people that I have known and worked with over the years; people that I respect and admire a great deal; people who understand the history as well as context of Hong Kong and China's development; people involved in the transition íV from the signing of the Joint Declaration in 1984, to the promulgation of the Basic Law in 1990; the Reunification in 1997; and the successful implementation of "One Country, Two Systems" since then.

     There are people here who have also experienced, first-hand, some of the disruptions, some of the upheavals and uncertainties that have beset our tiny corner of the earth over the years.

     At the same time, many of you have also seen Hong Kong grow, flourish and expand its reach to all corners of the world as a highly connected, innovative, adaptable and successful economy.

     Of all the groups that I have spoken with, you are the one that best understands what we are faced with. You will agree that at the end of the day, Hong Kong will prevail, as we have done previously. We shall find a solution. And our entire community will emerge the stronger for it.

     Today, however, I can't ignore the elephant in the room, you probably don't see it. Some might call it the gorilla in the room. A really disruptive gorilla. I would like to share with you some thoughts that I have about the current protests in Hong Kong. I hope they can provide some context to the issues that we are dealing with. I hope, too, that they can offer some balance to the somewhat one-sided story that you have gleaned from the media.

     Economic impact, first. I have been asked this question many times. Frankly, I don't have the relevant data yet to quantify the impact of the protests on our economy. But it is evident that shops, restaurants and hotels in the affected areas have been hurt. Certainly, the transport sector is suffering because of the blockage of some of our main roads. Just ask any taxi driver in Hong Kong.

     The financial services sector continued to operate in an orderly manner. The Hong Kong dollar exchange rate and interbank interest rates have been stable. And, to date, no abnormalities in the foreign exchange and stock markets have been observed.

     The overall economic situation is  manageable for the time being, but if the protests were to drag on for a much longer period of time, it would have much more serious consequences. There is, to be sure, the risk that the protests will hurt Hong Kong's reputation. And this may undermine our competitiveness and economic performance in the medium term.  

     Fortunately, despite the large-scale protests and confrontations, no one has suffered serious injury. No windows have been broken, no vehicles overturned íV or even scratched. There has been no arson, no looting, despite a month-long street protest. To me, that speaks of the civility and decency that have long been the hallmarks of Hong Kong.  

     What does concern me the most is not the short-term economic impact, but the apparent disregard for the rule of law, as well as the visible and deep divide in the community.

     One of our greatest strengths is the rule of law. It is the cornerstone of our present success and future prosperity. But what some of the protesters are doing íV such as charging cordon lines, blocking major roads, resisting arrests and even willfully defying High Court injunctions íV are shaking this very cornerstone of stability.

     In its recent statement, the Hong Kong Bar Association came out and pointed out that these acts are tantamount "to tak(ing) the law into one's own hands, thereby going down a slippery slope towards a state of lawlessness".  I share the Bar Association's concern. This is, indeed, a dangerous path to follow. It eats away the very foundation of our society. If the rule of law were chipped away in any significant way, in my view, Hong Kong will no longer be the same. I hope that those responsible for the movement should take notice of that.

     Turning to my second concern about the divide in our community, some may argue that the protests have to do with increasing wealth concentration or wealth disparity, if you like, deteriorating social mobility, housing shortage and more.  We need to deal with these issues in turn, and we need to do that in our  usual, rational and pragmatic manner. But the immediate cause of the protests is clear. It has to do with constitutional reform íV in particular, how to nominate candidates for the election of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage in 2017.

     The Government understands the protesters' demands. It seems that some of the protesters would rather sacrifice universal suffrage than accept anything less than their own interpretation of democracy, that includes, among other things, civic nomination. There is, however, a sizeable group of Hong Kong citizens who hold very different views. And we need to be cognizant of their wishes as well.

     So, yes, we are a divided community, perhaps just like Scotland and its independence issue. Without consensus, or at least without a two thirds majority in the Legislative Council, there can be no change to our election procedure. Five million Hong Kong people will not be able to vote in the election of the Chief Executive in 2017. And that would deprive Hong Kong of a political milestone of having the opportunity to elect directly its own local government head.  Instead, the status quo íV that is, electing the Chief Executive by the 1 200-member election committee íV would continue.

     I totally understand the people's desire to elect for themselves and by themselves a leader who is accountable to them. But it seems to me that electing the Chief Executive by means of 5 million voters must be decidedly better than doing so through our current 1 200-committee-member approach. In fact, I think that is a no-brainer.

     The Government will continue to do our best to bridge the divide, to build consensus consistent with the provision of our constitution. We do not underestimate the difficulty of this task. But ultimately it is still up to us, the Hong Kong people, to come together íV to take that giant step forward towards universal suffrage.

     Protests and confrontations may well continue to be part of this consensus-building process, we know that. But I am confident that Hong Kong people will find a way forward. After all, respecting differences is a value shared by all Hong Kong people.

     Meanwhile, several main roads are blocked, causing huge inconvenience to ordinary citizens.  They have been patient and they have been tolerant so far. But it has already been more than four weeks. Patience and tolerance are running a bit thin. We see more and more isolated incidents between protesters and citizens. And the hardworking police will do their best to maintain peace and order.

     In closing, I would like to ask you, the people who truly understand Hong Kong, to continue speaking up for Hong Kong. Speak up as you have done over the years. Hong Kong now needs your continuing support íV now more than ever.

     Thank you.

Ends/Friday, October 31, 2014
Issued at HKT 23:49


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