Protesting shareholders have been barred from attending the annual general meeting of Hong Kong’s privately-owned Link Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) amid rumours that it is set to conduct its largest-ever sale of commercial assets.

The Hong Kong government established the controversial trust in 2004, granting it ownership of 151 formerly publicly-owned retail properties and shopping malls. Link REIT listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange the following year.

Protest at Link REIT’s 2017 annual general meeting. Photo: League of Social Democrats via Facebook.

But it has since disposed of nearly 30 small-sized malls to private investors at a profit. The Hong Kong Economic Times on Wednesday cited anonymous sources as saying that the trust was on the verge of selling off 20 more, valued at a total HK$15 billion.

Small businesses and pro-democracy politicians have accused new mall owners of hiking rents and poor property management and regularly call on the government to buy back Link REIT’s assets.

Separate room

Wednesday’s annual general meeting was held at the Wanchai Convention and Exhibition Centre. As in previous years, small shareholders protesting against the trust attempted to enter the venue, accompanied by activists from the pro-democracy League of Social Democrats.

Sophia So, chairperson of The Link Watch activist group, told reporters that around 20 to 30 small shareholders were not allowed into the conference hall where senior executives addressed questions. They were asked to watch a live broadcast from another room.

“They did not explain the factors on which they based their dividing and screening of the shareholders,” she said.

Protest at Link REIT’s 2017 annual general meeting. Photo: League of Social Democrats via Facebook.

“[Link REIT CEO] George Hongchoy’s methods are even crazier than those of Xi Jinping when he visited Hong Kong,” wrote the League of Social Democrats in a Facebook statement. “Even journalists have been kicked out.”

“The security is even stricter than the standards adopted by Chinese Communist leaders – Link REIT has already established its own empire.”

See also: In Pictures: The slow death of Home Ownership estate Tin Ma Court

District councillor Au Nok-hin of the Democratic Party questioned whether the trust would breach regulations set by Hong Kong’s financial watchdog if it indeed tried to sell off 20 malls at once. The Securities and Futures Commission’s Code on Real Estate Investment Trusts states that “active trading of real estate is restricted.”

“[Aberdeen’s] Tin Wan Shopping Mall was forcibly redesigned as an international school, thereby closing the district’s shopping mall,” Au wrote in a press release. “[Wong Tai Sin’s] Tin Ma Court was neglected by its new owner, who has turned it into a ghost town.”

Tin Ma Court, a small-sized shopping mall sold off by Link REIT that critics claim is being “neglected.” File photo: Elson Tong/HKFP.

Au led a number of protests against Link REIT during his political career, although Democratic Party legislators generally supported listing the trust on the stock exchange in the mid-2000s.

Link REIT declined to respond to enquiries from various local media outlets on the possible disposal of 20 Hong Kong malls. However, it announced on the stock exchange on Wednesday evening that it would conduct a strategic review of its asset portfolio.

“No decision has yet been made as to any proposal and there is no assurance that the process of the strategic review will lead to any transaction being announced or concluded,” read the announcement.

Elson Tong

Elson Tong is a graduate of international relations and former investigations consultant. He has also written for Stand News.