A leading Hong Kong businesswoman and member of the city's Executive Council, which deliberates policy, compared the struggle of pro-democracy protesters to that of slaves in the American South in the 19th century. The remarks, which ran in a local English-language daily, have triggered an angry response from many in the Chinese territory.
Laura Cha, who is also a board member at the prominent bank HSBC, urged that protesters seeking further democratic reforms be more patient. "American slaves were liberated in 1861 but did not get voting rights until 107 years later," she was quoted as saying by the Standard newspaper. "So why can't Hong Kong wait for a while?"
She was speaking at a Hong Kong trade roadshow in Paris.
Aside from the historical inaccuracies, it is very bizarre and inflammatory to link the former British colony's population to the brutal historical experience of slavery in America and the miseries that followed for the country's repressed and marginalized black communities. Many Hong Kongers who have taken to the streets fear that China is trying to rein back the city's unique freedoms and that Beijing's future policies may amount to a kind of voter suppression.
Cha's comment seemed to echo the tone deafness of Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who earlier this month told foreign reporters that full democracy would give the city's poor people too much a say.
A petition, which has gathered thousands of signatures, circulated online calling on Cha to apologize for the statement and HSBC to take action.
We, the Hong Kong public, will not stand these remarks likening our rights to slavery, nor will we stand the kind of voter disenfranchisement her and her associates attempt to perpetrate on the Hong Kong public.
On Friday, Cha issued a statement, saying what she meant was that "every country’s path to democracy was evolved in its own historical context. She did not mean any disrespect and regrets that her comment has caused concerns."
Hong Kong's protests were triggered by news earlier this year that elections in 2017 for the city's next leader would only involve candidates vetted by Beijing. They have struck a chord particularly among the city's youth, many of whom have no experience of life under British colonial rule, which ended with the city's handover to China in 1997.
Part of the anger of the protesters is directed at the city's political and business elites, who many see as acting in collusion with the status quo in Beijing. Cha's patronizing statements further stoke the fires.