Hong Kong finance chief warns of political unrest as economy weakens

Hong Kong finance chief warns of political unrest as economy weakens
PHOTO: Reuters

Hong Kong - Hong Kong's financial secretary warned Wednesday that political unrest would "unavoidably" damage the economy after riots rocked the city earlier this month, predicting a growth slowdown for 2016.

In an unusually emotive budget speech John Tsang - tipped as a possible contender to be the semi-autonomous city's next leader - said the street battles had left him "distressed and angry".

Tsang, who is part of a Beijing-friendly government and met with China's President Xi Jinping last year, used his speech to weigh in on Hong Kong's recent turmoil.

Violence broke out on the first night of the Lunar New Year after protesters gathered around illegal food hawkers in the busy commercial district of Mong Kok to protect them from health officials.

Masked demonstrators hurled bricks at police, who in turn fired warning shots in the air - a very rare occurrence in Hong Kong.

More than 30 protesters face charges of "rioting" and some have also complained of police violence.

Among those charged are leaders of "localist" groups pushing for more autonomy, or even independence, from Beijing.

It came against a backdrop of growing fear over China's influence on the city, which has worsened since the disappearance of five booksellers known for publishing titles critical of Beijing.

Four of the men are now officially under criminal investigation on the mainland.

"I was shocked that our city could have turned overnight into such a strange and alien place that I hardly recognised," said Tsang.

"We anticipate that political disputes will only intensify over the coming months," he added.

"Political volatility will unavoidably impact on our economy." Tsang said upcoming legislative elections in September would exacerbate tensions and traced the city's woes back to pro-democracy protests of 2014 that brought parts of the city to a standstill.

Describing the economic outlook as "far from promising", Tsang said growth for 2016 would be between one and two per cent - down from last year's 2.4 per cent - weighed by US interest rate increases, a lull in exports and a slowdown in tourism to Hong Kong.

The property market in Hong Kong had also taken a hit, with prices falling nine per cent since October and expected to remain under pressure, Tsang added.

The bleak forecast comes as China's economy slows, impacting regional and global markets.

In a city where the wealth gap is widening, Tsang announced a $38.8 billion relief package, including a 75 per cent reduction in salaries tax.

He also unveiled a raft of stimulus measures for industry, from sweeteners for small businesses to funding for tech innovation and film production.

The long-awaited Shenzhen-Hong Kong Stock Connect - designed to open up stocks to investors both sides of the border - was ready to go, said Tsang, subject to Beijing's green light.

Tsang finished with a quote from late US president John F. Kennedy, saying: "Our problems are man-made, therefore they can be solved by man." But he predicted "chaos" for Hong Kong if conflicts were allowed to continue.

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