The view from the street in Hong Kong

All eyes were on Hong Kong last week as millions gathered in parts of the city, through rain and shine, in a bid for universal suffrage. The movement known as Occupy Central resulted in massive road blocks, traffic congestion, and the temporary closure of schools and businesses.

To international observers, pictures of tear gas and the potential for violence have been the most prominent images to come out of the conflict. But to local Hong Kongers, it has been quite the opposite, despite some further flare ups of violence this week.

"ANZ’s Nathan Road branch [in Hong Kong] is a street away from the site of some of the biggest protests."
Ivy Au Yeung, CEO, ANZ Hong Kong

The movement, originally named Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), was initiated by three academics in 2013 with the intention to campaign through dialogue, deliberation, civil referendum and civil disobedience in Central - the business and financial district of Hong Kong.

Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, the protestors set clear rules around only taking to the streets in a peaceful spirit and only if necessary. It is somewhat ironic that the two real aspects to capture international headlines are so widely different –on one hand tear gas and on the other, the protestors who collected their own rubbish and left the streets cleaner than they were previously.

Apart from scuffles in Mongkok, which were quickly brought under control, the spirit of the mainly student protests has remained peaceful and pragmatic. It isn’t about trying to force a revolution through violence as we have seen in some other demonstrations that have gained international attention in recent years.

The peaceful spirit of demonstration was widely different to those movements around the globe, but the underlying forces mirror those bothering young people the world over. In Hong Kong, minimum wage remains stubbornly low, property prices skyrocket and the gap between rich and poor widens.

It may not be the headline reason for taking to the streets, but the simmering tensions explain why the movement has garnered such widespread appeal. But many members of Hong Kong’s older generations doubt the students will achieve anything in practical terms.

Hong Kong’s pragmatism was on display as protestors cleared the roads for the Government Headquarters to allow 3000 public servants return to work or to allow an ambulance to pass through.

Even though some businesses were temporarily impacted (ANZ was one of twenty-nine banks that chose to close branches) pragmatism from protestors saw our staff choose to return to work last Monday.

ANZ’s Nathan Road branch is a street away from the site of some of the biggest protests. On that street there are jewellery and retail shops and other branches that all opened too. To the people of Hong Kong, it's business as usual which is the attitude our staff at ANZ have.

Nevertheless, at ANZ we know it is a difficult time for our staff. As leaders, we need to show that these events impact us all and that our staff are not forgotten. It was great to see Andrew Geczy and Farhan Faruqui at the Mongkok branch, right at the centre of the Kowloon protests.

And it’s not about self-interest as an organisation, because our transaction volumes were hardly impacted given people have other modern channels to do their banking. It was the commitment that people in Hong Kong, including the local ANZ staff, have to working hard and helping customers.

So while those living overseas saw the images on the front of Time and speculated as to the potential for further violence, it’s a different feeling in a city that is as used to protests as Hong Kong is.

Ivy Au Yeung is Chief Executive Officer at ANZ Hong Kong.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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