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[HONG KONG] A watershed scheme to allow cross-trading between Hong Kong and Shanghai's stock markets has been delayed indefinitely, a Hong Kong official said on Monday, warning the pro-democracy protests that have gripped the city could impact the project's progress.
The Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect platform, which would enable international investors to trade selected stocks in Shanghai's tightly-restricted exchange, and allow mainland investors to buy stocks in Hong Kong, was widely expected to launch this week.
Charles Li, the head of Hong Kong's stock exchange, said on Monday the tie-up had been postponed, adding that the ongoing mass demonstrations demanding Beijing allow the semi-autonomous city free leadership elections could impact the future of the scheme.
"If(the protest) drags on, it's impossible for it not to be affected. This is important for Hong Kong," he told reporters.
But investors have also reportedly expressed concern about a lack of clarity on taxation and other issues.
China's premier Li Keqiang announced plans for the project in April and Chinese and Hong Kong authorities issued a statement that month saying it would take "approximately six months" to launch.
But in a statement issued late Sunday, the stock exchange said no date had been set for the execution of the Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect scheme, and it had yet to receive regulatory approval.
"There have been market expectations that Stock Connect will commence its operation in October 2014...however, at the date of this announcement, HKEx has not received the relevant approval for the launch of Stock Connect, and there is no firm date for its implementation," the statement said.
Mr Li said Hong Kong does not have a say on when it can start although the technical infrastructure is in place.
If it goes ahead, the scheme is expected to see volumes on both exchanges rise significantly, particularly Shanghai, but it is subject to strict limits in order to preserve capital controls in China, where Communist authorities keep a tight grip on the yuan currency.
Plans for a similar tie-up in 2007 sparked a surge in share prices in both bourses but they were eventually scrapped as the global financial crisis unfolded.
Mr Li also told reporters at a press conference on Sunday that he felt pro-democracy activists should now retreat as prolonged protest could harm the city's overall financial stability.
"I think retreating with pride is glamorous. I think our kids can consider that," he added.
Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets asking for full democratic reforms after Beijing made a decision in August that effectively means all candidates running for the city's top post in future will be screened by a loyalist committee.