Office workers took to the streets for the fourth consecutive day on Thursday
Office workers took to the streets for the fourth consecutive day on Thursday © Reuters

Employers have stepped up efforts to ensure the safety of their staff in Hong Kong, where months of protests have intensified into running battles between police and demonstrators.

The protests, which began after the authorities introduced an extradition bill that would have allowed for the extradition of criminal suspects to stand trial in mainland China, degenerated into fierce battles played out on university campuses across the territory.

Universities have suspended classes for the rest of the year and the violent scenes triggered an exodus of mainland Chinese students. Some international students have requested assistance from their consulates. France has helped students who wanted to leave and the UK consulate advised its nationals on campus to stay in their dormitories.

The protests alarmed investors, with the Hang Seng index closing down 0.9 per cent, a fall of 4.8 per cent for the week. Luxury brand Burberry and Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s flagship airline, both reported this week that they had been hit as the protests sap the city’s economy.

Daniel Zhang, Alibaba chief executive, called on investors to back Hong Kong despite the turmoil. “We continue to believe the future of Hong Kong remains bright,” he said on Friday, days after launching a secondary listing ithat could raise as much as $13.4bn. The Hang Seng was up 0.3 per cent in Friday morning trade.

Xi Jinping, China’s president, said that “restoring order was Hong Kong’s most urgent task”, in a statement released via Chinese state media late on Thursday. As Hong Kong lawyers push back at state intervention in how they handle cases involving protesters, Mr Xi said he supported the judiciary “in punishing violent criminals” in a reference to the demonstrators.

The Hong Kong government on Friday condemned an attack on Thursday by protesters in London on the territory’s justice minister Teresa Cheng, saying that she suffered “serious bodily harm” in the incident. Ms Cheng, who was on her way to an event to promote Hong Kong as a centre for dispute resolution, is seen has having a key role in the introduction of the controversial extradition bill.

Protesters in Hong Kong on Thursday continued attempts to block roads and students created barricades to stop police entering university campuses.

However, the effect of the protests has extended beyond students to include Hong Kong professionals, particularly as demonstrations that initially took place at weekends are now also staged during the working week.

Office workers have protested each day this week in the city’s financial district, helping to set up roadblocks in a show of support for the more radical demonstrators. Images of professionals running from tear gas as police cleared the roads have become commonplace.

A video of a male banker being wrestled to the ground and arrested by police was widely circulated online on Wednesday. “I work at Citibank OK . . . My office is like 500 metres away from here!” the man can be heard saying in English.

Citibank said: “We are aware of this incident and are investigating further. We expect all our employees to adhere to the law.”

Citi is one of a number of foreign companies to advise staff to try and avoid dangerous situations, allowing employees to work from home or make alternative arrangements.

BNP Paribas and S&P Global, the rating agency, have also told staff they can work from home. Some BNP employees have been operating from alternate business continuity planning sites separate to their main offices.

One Hong Kong resident with a Canadian passport told the Financial Times that the protesters’ demands were “unreasonable”. He added that he supported the police and intended to leave Hong Kong because he no longer felt safe in the territory.

Police used tear gas on Thursday after they said protesters had fired arrows and thrown objects at them at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, accusing them of “seriously affecting public safety and order”.

As the violence has forced local and international schools to close, some foreign residents have complained that their lives are being disrupted.

“I know this sounds ridiculous but I’ve spoken to several expats and I think from their perspectives things only get serious when their kids can’t go to school and they can’t get their lattes and go to yoga,” a foreign executive told the FT.

Some Hong Kongers decry such sentiments. A 32-year-old office worker at the lunchtime protest on Thursday said complaining expats “don’t know the background” of the demonstrations. “This is not their home,” she added.

Additional reporting by Jamil Anderlini

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