Hong Kong’s protesters have laid a minefield for big business. The city’s democracy debate is a deeply divisive issue. For companies, keeping quiet is less risky than expressing an opinion guaranteed to irk customers and staff or strain relations with Beijing. It’s even harder for individual employees who must tread a blurry line between free speech and corporate interests.
Before the movement took off a month ago, many business leaders were happy to predict that protests would bring chaos. The Big Four accounting firms even took out joint advertisements in local newspapers warning that disruption could shake Hong Kong’s position as an international financial center.
Now that activists are on the streets, silence is the preferred policy. Those companies that do speak out mostly take a conciliatory tone. Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing has called on protesters to go home. Jack Ma, chairman of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, blamed dissatisfaction with the city’s huge wealth divide, but also warned protesters not to push too hard.
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