One of the most dramatic scenes from the widespread vandalism on the first night of 2020 – which marred Hong Kong’s New Year celebrations – was possibly the two historic lion statues at the entrance to HSBC’s headquarters in Central being set ablaze by radicals.
A mob of masked and black-clad protesters, having previously trashed several branches of the British banking conglomerate on a rampage from Causeway Bay to the city’s central business district, spattered what was believed to be paint thinner over Stephen and Stitt, HSBC’s iconic guardian lions, and hurled kindling onto them.
Before the arson attack, someone also put red paint on the lions’ eyes and stuck incantation papers on their paws.
The two bronze lions, one roaring while the other sits watching, were cast in the 1930s and beloved since then by HSBC employees, customers and investors as propitious Chinese feng shui symbols that also appear on the Hong Kong dollar banknotes.
The sight of the two lions engulfed in flames was heartrending for many and came after radical protesters vented their anger with the bank for closing accounts used to accept donations from people sympathetic to those arrested during the seven months of protests.
When calls were made on social media platforms to target HSBC’s extensive network in the city to “make it pay,” the bank rushed to deny that it was mandated by the authorities to do so, nor did the closure have anything to do with a recent police anti-money laundering operation related to the protests. The bank added that it was adhering to its established rules when examining transactions and determining follow-up actions.
On Thursday morning, many gathered in the piazza in front of the bank to see the vandalized lions, while cleaners contracted by the bank were busy trying to scrub them clean. Some passers-by patted their paws affectionately – a local belief that power and prosperity would pass onto those who stroked the lions’ paws.
“It’s ironic that [protesters] tried to destroy the lions and the bank, with its strong British heritage and identity, while waving the Union Jack,” said one customer.
Fortunately, other than their charred appearance, the fire did not cause any substantial damage to the two sculptures. The last time these two lions suffered such an ordeal was during World War II when shrapnel left scars on the back of Stephen and they were almost melted down by Japanese invaders.
HSBC, the territory’s largest bank and with a global reach, issued a statement near midnight on Wednesday decrying the repeated violence against its properties in recent days.
“We strongly condemn the acts of vandalism and damage directed at our premises repeatedly in the last few days … Hong Kong is HSBC’s home since our establishment here in 1865. We believe the rule of law is essential to the city’s status as an international financial center and we look forward to the speedy resolution of the issues,” read the statement.
Several protesters were caught and charged with causing criminal damage.
On Christmas Eve, HSBC’s main office and branch in Mong Kok across the harbor in Kowloon was overrun by protesters, who smashed ATMs, pulled up shutters and threw petrol bombs inside. The same group of demonstrators also stormed into branches of the HSBC-controlled Hang Seng Bank as well as Chinese lenders along a major thoroughfare there.
HSBC has been forced to shut its Mong Kok office indefinitely since then, and its branches in Causeway Bay and Wan Chai were also closed on Thursday, the first business day of the new year.
The bank that relies on the city for the lion’s share of its profit was the latest collateral target amid the worst social unrest ever in the former British territory.
It has joined the ranks of the city’s flag carrier Cathay Pacific, under the umbrella of the British conglomerate Swire, which flew into a political storm after Beijing threatened to deny access to its airspace due to the airline’s inaction to discipline pilots and crew members joining protests.
Rupert Hogg, Cathay’s CEO who steered it out of years of loss, departed amid the headwind, with the carrier scrambling to repair ties with Beijing.
The cases of Cathay and HSBC indicate the reality facing Western companies – they are no longer immune and are being caught between the authorities and protesters.
The worry among observers and executives is that, notwithstanding Hong Kong’s reputation as an easy place to do business, its image of order and stability has been tarnished, with the business environment becoming increasingly adverse as the politically-charged city hurtles into another eventful year.
On top of a crippling economic slump complicated by the social turmoil, international businesses operating in the protest-riven city are now forced to take sides.
And, since they are likely to become compliant to the wants and needs of Beijing and the city’s government, albeit reluctantly, they have to brace for the repercussions of infuriating protesters and many locals who share a strong anti-Beijing and pro-democracy ethos.