Hong Kong protest boom for protection gear businesses begins to tumble

Businesses selling protection gear have enjoyed a boom in sales. (Reuters)
Updated 15 August 2019

Hong Kong protest boom for protection gear businesses begins to tumble

  • Behind the tear gas, flying bricks and transport disruptions there are bigger factors at play, such as shrinking global trade volumes and a slowdown in demand from mainland China

BEIJING: John Lam’s safety equipment shop has been spared the global downdraft shaking Hong Kong’s economy. In times of crisis, businesses providing basic necessities tend to fare better.
In Lam’s case, that means hard hats, filtered masks, goggles and other gear that millions of anti-government protesters taking to the streets in the past two months bought to protect themselves as clashes with police turned increasingly violent.
“Many people are willing to save a meal in order to buy some protective equipment, especially students,” Lam said inside his Shing Fat Safety Products shop in Yau Ma Tei, a working class commercial area of the city.
“Usually unnecessary items for civilians have become the necessity of the moment.”
Lam, who opposes the violence that has marked many of the protests, said sales had “doubled or tripled” since early June.
At times, he could not replenish stocks fast enough to meet demand. Some customers were buying 50 items at once. But lately, in a sign of saturation, demand has been easing. The reality of a slowing economy is also kicking in.
Behind the tear gas, flying bricks and transport disruptions there are bigger factors at play, such as shrinking global trade volumes and a slowdown in demand from mainland China.
Those trickle through into all aspects of the economy, including the construction industry — Lam’s core customer base.
“Although our business has improved lately, it does not mean that the economic downturn will not affect our business next month,” Lam said.
Indeed, the problems facing Hong Kong’s wide-open economy — which is expected to grind to a halt in coming quarters — run so deep that even those businesses whose products have been repurposed as protest paraphernalia are losing momentum.
Joe Chan, director of Many Stationery & Book Centre Co in the Sham Shui Po, a neighbourhood that has been the scene of protests and has been soaked in tear gas multiple times, said sales of Post-It notes are up 20 percent. Protesters have been using them to cover walls with part-art, part-political messages across the territory.
But his more important clients, event organisers who use stationery as promotion materials, are now few and far between. Overall, revenues are down 10 percent.
“This year they cancelled, or delayed,” Chan said, referring to orders.

FASTFACT

Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China in 1997.

Emily Tam, store manager of Baleno, a clothing shop in Causeway Bay, said stocks of black T-shirts, the unofficial uniform of the protests, ran out on a daily basis in June and July.
But over the past two weekends, the shopping district witnessed violent clashes and barricaded roads. Her shop closed early and since then it has seen fewer customers.
“We’re getting close to the red line that means business losses,” Tam said.
Across the road, a seller surnamed Hui at a Watsons pharmacy says her store often runs out of cooling pads, surgical masks and other supplies that protesters use. But sales of other, more expensive items, such as cosmetics, are dropping.
“Surely we are also experiencing an overall economic downturn. And when there was tear gas, we shut the door,” Hui said.
The economy has become a focus for a public relations battle between authorities and protesters.
As a city-wide strike kicked off last week, government officials said protests were scaring high-end shoppers and tourists away, threatening growth.
Protesters are blaming the downturn on the fact that Hong Kongers have little control over public policy in the absence of universal suffrage.
They say the government spends too many resources on Beijing’s priorities, such as developing a “Greater Bay Area” around the Pearl River Delta, and it is not doing enough to solve income inequality and a housing shortage.
Chan Chi Ming, 60, at Shing Cheong Stationery & Books Ltd, in Sham Shui Po, agrees with the government. He is losing business and hopes police “arrest thousands.”
But Hungry Dino owner Tracy Tang sees it differently. She has been handing out discounted rice balls to young protesters after hearing some skipped dinner amid family feuds over their participation in the movement.
“If we say that the economic deterioration is all related to the protests, it is extremely unfair,” Tang said. “We should shift the question to why youngsters are sacrificing themselves.
“As Hong Kongers with a conscience, we feel heartbroken for what has happened in the past two months. It has already affected the economy. But we will still offer discounts and high-quality food to Hong Kong people.”


S. African rare earth mine hopes for boost from US-China feud

A general view of Steenkampskraal (SKK) rare-earth mine on July 29, 2019, about 80Km from the Western Cape town of Vanrhynsdorp. (AFP)
Updated 4 min 52 sec ago

S. African rare earth mine hopes for boost from US-China feud

  • Rare earth elements are a group of 17 minerals unique for their magnetic, catalytic and electrochemical properties

CAPE TOWN: It’s old, doesn’t look like much and is located well out the way in an arid part of western South Africa.
But the Steenkampskraal Mine may be about to become piping hot mining property thanks to some of the world’s highest-grade deposits of rare earth metals.
“Steenkampskraal will become a very important source of rare earths for the global industry,” Trevor Blench, chairman of Steenkampskraal Holdings Limited, said during a recent tour.
The mine, located about 350 km north of Cape Town, used to produce thorium, a component of nuclear fuel, in the 1950s and 60s.
But now it’s been found to also have monazite ore which contains extremely high grade rare earth minerals including neodymium and praseodymium — elements vital to cutting-edge industries.
Manufacturing uses range from tinted welding goggles to industrial magnets, strong alloys for aircraft engines, military hardware, hybrid cars, consumer electronic devices, medical equipment and even the flints in cigarette lighters.

‘Tech minerals’
China produces the largest share of “tech minerals,” with a domestic output of 120,000 tons in 2018. That’s vastly more than the US, which relies on China for about 80 percent of its rare-earth imports.
But now Beijing has threatened to cut off the supply as trade frictions mount, prompting US President Donald Trump to give the Pentagon an executive order to find other sources of the crucial elements.

Rare earth elements are a group of 17 minerals unique for their magnetic, catalytic and electrochemical properties.
For the first time since 1985, China last year became a net importer of some rare earths for its industrial needs, while the government cracked down on illegal exploration and production.
Global sales of electric cars, which need the minerals, jumped by 68 percent in 2018 to 5.12 million, with China selling over a million vehicles, according to the International Energy Agency.

FASTFACT

17 - Rare earth elements are a group of 17 minerals unique for their magnetic, catalytic and electrochemical properties.

“China may, as a result of its own requirements, just export less and less to the rest of the world,” Blench said.
Steenkampskraal Mine could just be the answer to growing demand, he suggested.
“About 14 percent of this rock is rare earths. That is an extraordinarily high grade and we don’t know anything like it on the planet,” Blench said, holding a small but heavy reddish brown rock.
Worldwide, many mines have around six percent or less rare earths in their ore.
No mines for rare earth elements currently operate in South Africa, but the government confirms the presence of yet-to-be tapped tech minerals.
“South Africa is certainly on par with any other country that would lay a claim to being able to supply rare earths elements to meet this increasing demand,” said mineralogist Deshenthree Chetty at Mintek, a government mineral and metallurgy research department.
She added that it would be “a great deal for our country to be able to supply, and we are in a position to do so, as long as those markets are favorable.”
“We have an abundance of rocks in which rare earth elements are found,” Mosa Mabuza, CEO of the Council for GeoScience, which surveys mineral deposits, told AFP.