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Hong Kong economy faces uncertain future 25 years after handover

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Hong Kong is one of the world's top financial hubs, but its economy faces an uncertain future 25 years after it transitioned from British to Chinese rule
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When Hong Kong transitioned from British to Chinese rule, Edmond Hui was a floor trader at the bustling stock exchange, witnessing the roaring growth of a city at the crossroads of the West and Asia.

Under a deal signed with Britain ahead of the 1997 handover, China promised Hong Kong could keep its capitalist system for 50 years, an arrangement that helped the city thrive as one of the world’s top financial hubs.

Friday marks the halfway point of that experiment, with uncertainty clouding the economic future of Hong Kong — a city reliant on an increasingly isolated China, struggling to shake off the reputational damage from political unrest and pandemic-induced border closures.

Hui, now the chief executive of a mid-tier stockbroker with nearly 300 employees, said post-handover markets have undergone a drastic shift, becoming more China-focused than ever.

“Before 1997, foreign capital propped up half of the market,” he said. “After 1997, things changed gradually until the whole market was held up by Chinese capital.”

China’s meteoric rise in the past two decades yielded vast benefits for Hong Kong, which became the gateway for mainland firms to raise funds and for foreign businesses to access what is today the world’s second-largest economy.

“Hong Kong was sort of a poster child of free trade and open markets,” veteran pro-Beijing Hong Kong politician Regina Ip told AFP.

But the interlocking of its fate with China has also led to warnings about overreliance and complacency.

Chinese companies made up around 80 percent of the market capitalisation in Hong Kong’s stock market this year, up from 16 percent in 1997.

And Chinese firms now account for seven of the top 10 holdings of the benchmark Hang Seng Index, which used to be anchored by homegrown brands such as Cathay Pacific and Television Broadcasts Limited.

Hong Kong’s GDP, meanwhile, has gone from being equivalent to 18 percent of mainland China’s in 1997 to less than three percent in 2020.

Hui greeted this comprehensive shift with a mild shrug.

“It’s just a matter of changing who’s boss,” he said.

“We can only hope that our country’s momentum will surpass that of Europe and the United States.”

– ‘The gateway to China’ –

As China’s economic and political power has grown over the last few decades, so have tensions with Western nations — which has also affected Hong Kong.

Beijing cracked down on dissent in the city after massive democracy protests in 2019, prompting the United States to revoke Hong Kong’s preferential trade status on the grounds that it was no longer autonomous enough.

Washington also sanctioned some Hong Kong officials.  

“Back in 1997, we were able to play the role of a very important middleman. But now… everyone has more doubts about our background,” Yan Wai-hin, an economics lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told AFP.

“If a trading partner feels that (Hong Kong) isn’t a neutral middleman… then the mutual trust might be lost.”

Yan said regional rivals such as Singapore were looking to capitalise on what they saw as an opening to supplant Hong Kong.  

Adding to that pressure, the tightening of political control has also meant Hong Kong has stuck to mainland China’s zero-Covid policy.

Stringent travel restrictions have kept the business hub cut off both from China and the world for the last two years, with authorities acknowledging it has prompted a talent exodus. 

But Ip said once restrictions were lifted, Hong Kong would recover.

“Our extremely advantageous geographical location is still there,” she said.

“We’re still the gateway to China.”

– ‘Complacent and insular’ –

Some industries other than finance, though, have struggled after the handover. 

“In the past 10 years or so, our GDP growth has lost steam and I think this had to do with Hong Kongers being complacent and insular,” said Simon Ho, president of the Hang Seng University of Hong Kong.

The city’s port, for instance, was among the world’s busiest for decades but has slipped in the rankings after peaking in 2004.

“The government took a neoliberal, non-interventionist approach, and there was no blueprint for developing industries and the economy,” Ho added.

He said authorities had devoted resources to sectors such as research and development, but that the results were “half-baked” and not competitive enough when compared with neighbouring tech hub Shenzhen.

“Hong Kong needs to figure out its role,” Ho said.

“In the past, we didn’t know how to complement the mainland, and in some cases even competed with it. In the long run, that will only get harder.” 

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Uber courts drivers by letting them pick rides

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Uber drivers in the United States who had to accept ride requests before learning where they were headed will soon be seeing details of trips being sought along with the fares
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Uber on Friday said it will let drivers in the United States see trip details before deciding whether to accept them — a new feature long sought by drivers.

A common lament by drivers at the app-summoned ride platform has been that they have to accept a request before learning where trips will take them, or how profitable they will be.

“Our new trip request screen makes it easier for drivers to decide if a trip is worth their time and effort by providing all the details — including exactly how much they’ll earn and where they’re going — upfront,” chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi said in a blog post.

Revealing details only once a driver had accepted a trip was seen as a way to ensure riders would get picked up promptly, and not be snubbed because they were headed to locations deemed undesirable by drivers.

But Khosrowshahi said drivers have made it clear that they want more flexibility and choice.

Uber said the new feature, called Upfront Fares, was tested in several cities and was a success with drivers while resulting in shorter wait times for passengers.

The ride-sharing firm will also shift from sending drivers a single ride request at a time, to letting them pick from a list of detailed passenger requests in an area.

Uber is engaged in a long-term effort to prove that its business model is socially and economy viable.

The “gig economy” — which uses temporary independent contractors for short-term tasks — has grown rapidly since Uber’s launch in 2009 and is promoted as a flexible way for people to earn money without the constraints of a full-time job.

But there has been growing backlash in countries around the world about the conditions and dangers gig workers face.

Uber driver ranks — which shrank during the Covid-19 pandemic — have not rebounded as quickly as demand for rides, and soaring fuel costs have made the gigs less attractive.

The firm in March announced a surcharge on both rides and Uber Eats meal deliveries that would go directly to drivers to help offset high fuel prices.

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Elon Musk fires back at Twitter in court battle

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Court rules require Elon Musk to provide a public version of his 'confidential' counter claims against Twitter as the court battle over holding him to the terms of the $44 bn buyout deal heads for trial in October.
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Elon Musk on Friday filed claims against Twitter as he fights back against the tech firm’s lawsuit demanding he be held to his $44 billion buyout deal.

Musk’s counter-suit was submitted along with a legal defense against Twitter’s claim that the billionaire is contractually bound to complete the deal he inked in April to buy Twitter, the Chancery Court in the state of Delaware said in a notice.

The 164-page filing was submitted as being “confidential,” meaning the documents were not accessible by the public, the notice indicated.

Rules of the court, however, require Musk to submit a public version of the filing with trade secrets or other sensitive information redacted.

A judge has ordered a five-day trial over Twitter’s lawsuit against Musk to begin on October 17.

The Tesla boss wooed Twitter’s board with a $54.20 per-share offer, but then in July announced he was “terminating” their agreement on accusations the firm misled him regarding its tally of fake and spam accounts.

Twitter, whose stock price closed at $41.61 on Friday, has stuck by its estimates regarding accounts run by software “bots” rather than people, and argued that Musk is contriving excuses to back out of the contract.

The social media platform has urged shareholders to endorse the deal, setting a vote on the merger for September 13.

“We are committed to closing the merger on the price and terms agreed upon with Mr. Musk,” Twitter chief executive Parag Agrawal and board chairman Bret Taylor said in a copy of a letter to investors.

Billions of dollars are at stake, but so is the future of Twitter, which Musk has said should allow any legal speech — an absolutist position that has sparked fears the network could be used to incite violence.

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Musk, Twitter get Oct. 17 trial in buyout fight

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Twitter is due to face off with Tesla boss Elon Musk on October 17 in the US state of Delaware in a buyout trial
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Twitter’s lawsuit to force Elon Musk to complete his $44 billion buyout bid is set to go to trial on October 17, a US judge has ordered, in a case with major stakes for both sides.

The trial is due to open in a court in the eastern state of Delaware and is set to last five days to decide whether Musk can walk away from the deal.

The Tesla boss wooed Twitter’s board with a $54.20 per-share offer, but then in July announced he was “terminating” their agreement on accusations the firm misled him regarding its tally of fake and spam accounts.

Twitter has countered by saying Musk already agreed to the deal and can’t back out now.

An order from the judge handling the case, Kathaleen McCormick, lays out an expedited schedule to resolve a fight that has left Twitter in limbo.

She reminds both sides that they “shall cooperate in good faith” on matters like handing over information to each other, a key topic that can result in delays. 

Billions of dollars are at stake, but so is the future of Twitter, which Musk has said should allow any legal speech — an absolutist position that has sparked fears the network could be used to incite violence.

Twitter blamed disappointing results last week on “headwinds,” including the uncertainty imposed on the company by Musk’s chaotic buyout bid.

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