Mainland banks, pro-Beijing businesses caught in Hong Kong protest cross-hairs

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong anti-government protesters are increasingly focusing their anger on mainland Chinese businesses and those with pro-Beijing links, daubing graffiti on store fronts and vandalizing outlets in the heart of the financial center.

Protesters took aim at some of China's largest banks at the weekend, spray-painting anti-China slogans on shuttered branches and trashing ATM machines of outlets such as Bank of China's Hong unit 2388.HK, while nearby international counterparts such as Standard Chartered STAN.L escaped untouched.

Another target was shops operated by Maxim's Caterers, including American coffee chain Starbucks Corp SBUX.O, after the daughter of the Hong Kong company's founder condemned the protesters at the United Nations human rights council in Geneva.

Demonstrators scrawled anti-China graffiti on several Starbucks outlets, including in the bustling tourist and business districts of Causeway Bay and Admiralty.

Protesters’ growing anger toward the local branches of Chinese banks comes at a bad time for the lenders, as their businesses are also expected to take a hit from the city’s economy facing its first recession in a decade.

Hong Kong had 22 licensed banks from mainland China in 2018, the most number of banks from any country, according to the Hong Kong Monetary Authority. The mainland banks accounted for 37% of total Hong Kong banking assets last year.

In the past few days, as thousands of protesters marched through the heart of the financial center, a small group of black-clad protesters frantically pasted posters and spray-painted expletives on shuttered branches of Chinese banks.

FILE PHOTO: A worker cleans graffiti sprayed by anti-government protesters at a Starbucks coffee shop a day after a protest in Causeway Bay district, Hong Kong, China, September 30, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha/File Photo

In the commercial and night life district of Wan Chai on Sunday, a branch of China CITIC Bank International, the offshore banking arm of conglomerate CITIC Group, was plastered with posters of protesters’ demands to the government. A StanChart bank branch next door was untouched.


“This protest is against China’s efforts to restrict our freedom, and we will target all the pro-China business groups who don’t speak out against that,” said IT professional Ronald, as he plastered a poster on the closed glass door of the bank.

Also on Sunday, a group of protesters tried to smash cameras over ATMs of Bank of China Hong Kong branch in Wan Chai and spray-painted machine screens, while on Tuesday they threw petrol bombs at the shuttered branch of Nanyang Commercial Bank.

On Wednesday, Bank of China Hong Kong said two of its city branches would remain closed due to vandalism. In a separate Chinese statement, the bank expressed its “deepest anger over the illegal violent behaviour”.

Anti-government protests turned violent early on Tuesday and continued into the night, with intense cat-and-mouse skirmishes marring celebrations in Beijing to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

The targeting of the banks in Hong Kong comes weeks after a group of protesters ran online campaigns urging people in Hong Kong to withdraw money from the Hong Kong branches of the Chinese lenders.

“This protest is sparked because the Hong Kong government and the PRC (People’s Republic of China) keep curbing our freedom and our core values,” said Chan, a 25-year-old accountant and protester.

“The vandalism and damage to the Chinese bank actually also reflects the fact that we don’t want our assets and freedom being kept by the Chinese authority. It has a symbolic meaning which is the same as the proposal of money withdrawal.”

Companies across Hong Kong, the Asian base for many global businesses, are walking a tightrope between the protesters and China’s Communist Party rulers in Beijing.

Cathay Pacific Airways 0293.HK became the biggest corporate casualty when China demanded in August that it suspend staff involved in the protest movement that has plunged Hong Kong into its biggest political crisis in decades.

At least 20 pilots and cabin crew have since been fired, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions has said.

Reporting By Anne Marie Roantree, Sumeet Chatterjee and Felix Tam; additional reporting by Alun John, David Kirton and Twinnie Siu; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Philippa Fletcher