Hong Kong leader: PR firms decline to restore city’s image

International News
Carrie Lam

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks to reporters’ during a press conference at the government building in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said Tuesday that international public relations firms have turned down the government’s requests to help restore the city’s reputation after months of pro-democracy protests.

The firms responded that “the time is not right” as the violence and unrest in the semiautonomous Chinese territory have shown no sign of ending, Lam said at a news conference. She didn’t give details on the firms or when they were approached.

The city’s reputation has likely been tarnished not just by the protests but also by what many view as the government’s slow response to the crisis.

Days after more than a million people took to the streets in early June, kicking off the protests, Lam suspended an extradition bill that sparked the unrest but refused to formally withdraw it. She caved in this month after the demonstrations escalated, but the promise to ax the bill was deemed too little, too late as protesters widened their demands to include democratic reforms.

“It would perhaps be not the most cost-effective way to use government resources to launch any campaign to rebuild Hong Kong’s reputation, but sooner or later, we will have to do it because I have every confidence in Hong Kong’s fundamentals,” Lam said Tuesday.

“The time will come for us to launch a major campaign to restore some of the damage done to Hong Kong’s reputation,” she said.

Violence flared again over the weekend after an unapproved march downtown descended into familiar chaos. Hong Kong’s economy, already reeling from the U.S.-China trade war, is facing its first recession in years, with tourist arrivals plunging and businesses being hit by the unrest.

The government has took out a full-page advertisement in the Australian Financial Review earlier this month, two days after Lam’s announcement that she was formally withdrawing the bill, vowing a peaceful resolution to the conflict amid concerns of possible military intervention by China. It’s the only known overseas effort by the government to assuage international jitters.

Lam said the city’s downgrade this week by credit ratings agency Moody’s was “disappointing” but acknowledged that the continued instability has tarnished international perception of Hong Kong’s financial stability. Moody’s was the second agency to make the move after Fitch Rating.

The world’s largest brewer, AB InBev, which produces Budweiser and Corona, provided a fillip to the city as it revived plans Tuesday to list its Asian business to raise up to $4.8 billion in Hong Kong’s biggest IPO this year.

It was, however, half the size of its initial public offering, which was shelved two months ago and aimed to raise $9.8 billion in what would have been the world’s biggest IPO this year. Jan Craps, CEO of the group’s Asia-Pacific arm, said there was strong investor interest in the company’s growth potential despite the challenging market conditions.

Lam said that she will begin open dialogues next week with various community groups, including protesters, and that participants can freely express their views.

Many protesters have said the dialogues are meaningless if the government refuses to accept their four other demands — direct elections for the city’s leaders, an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, unconditional release of protesters who have been detained and not labeling the protests as riots.

One prominent activist, Joshua Wong, was going to speak to U.S. lawmakers Tuesday at a Washington hearing on U.S. policy responses to the protests.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying accused Western forces of voicing public support for what she described as rioters and meeting with those advocating for the city’s independence.

“We know that those Hong Kong separatists are now in the United States,” she said, without mentioning Wong or anyone else by name.

Lam said not all Hong Kong citizens support the protesters’ demands and reiterated that the government cannot condone violence. She said the dialogues are not one-off “gimmicks” but an important first step to resolve grievances over problems such as shortage of affordable housing and lack of jobs that contributed to the unrest.

Also Tuesday, A subway train derailed during the morning rush hour, sparking rumors that it may have been caused by protesters, some of whom have vandalized subway stations in recent weeks. Transport Secretary Frank Chan urged the public not to speculate as investigations are ongoing. The fire department said eight people were injured, including five who were hospitalized.

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Associated Press news assistant Liu Zheng in Beijing contributed to this report.

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