Correspondents, or quite possibly their editors, have a strange habit of ignoring interviewees’ most compelling comments and quoting the duller bits. So I was not totally surprised (and should probably be relieved) to see that my more robust descriptions of certain Hong Kong plutocrats did not make it into print in the Daily Telegraph piece on the waning prospects of the next tycoon generation. It is a family newspaper after all. (The author was on a Southern Tour that yielded an interesting article on the more substantial issue of the growing cost of Chinese jeans. The West wants a de-facto revalued Renminbi? Well, here it comes – enjoy those price rises.)
The twilight of the Big Lychee’s cartel-scions is a gradually breaking story. The Stanley Ho soap opera of squabbling half-siblings and wives is an extreme example of the difficulties of transition in family-owned companies. A few second-tier firms have bright and alert youngsters waiting in the wings, but ask businessmen which of the mega-tycoons’ offspring are as good as their dads ever were, and the answer will surely, after much brain-racking, be ‘none’.
Does anyone expect Li Ka-shing’s number-one son Victor, apparently unaware that it’s fate that has handed it all to him on a plate, to continue his father’s trajectory from plastic flowers to global asset-shifting? Younger brother Richard breaks up with a starlet who bore him three children out of wedlock. Henderson Land scion and singleton Peter Lee buys male designer triplets from a surrogate mother to ensure aging dad Lee Shau-kee’s grave gets swept for the rest of the century. Pansy and Daisy Ho… don’t even go there. These people have had abnormal upbringings that have shielded them from what most of us would call reality. There is a good reason why the word we use to mean overindulged – ‘spoilt’ – also means damaged and rendered useless. Family-owned companies have limited enough life-spans without being inherited by weirdoes.
At the same time, it is slowly dawning on the great Hong Kong public that the titans of industry they have grown up admiring for decades are not the city-building visionaries of legend. The billionaires might have had a hand in the booming glory days of the 1960s-80s, but they have long since gone from adding value and creating wealth to skimming it off the productive economy by cornering the domestic markets in essential goods and services. Most of the tycoons wouldn’t last five minutes overseas in capitalist economies where you have to compete. There is no Henry Ford, Bill Gates or Richard Branson among them; they make their fortunes by suffocating anyone in Hong Kong trying to become one.
Last year’s property developers’ excesses, with fake floor numbers, fake prices, fake show flats and fake supply shortages as part of high-pressure midnight sales tactics, tipped a balance. Alice Poon’s Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong, after gathering dust for years, finally got its audience. People are recognizing that the cartels are, even more than the civil service or public housing tenants, entitlement-dependent weights on our shoulders. I have personally heard one (non-property) businessman interested in policy wonder whether the government should nationalize the (tycoon-owned) bus companies to help relieve the growing wealth gap. This is not a great time for the arrogant and semi-talented to be stepping into daddy’s shoes.
Can the government, faced with a community running out of patience, continue to deliver the privileges and immunities that the cartels rely on? This is why the ‘Twilight of the scions’ story is going to be important. The cozy relationship and overlap between the local political and business ‘elites’ can only be ultimately authorized by Beijing.
The story from here on will give us an idea about how the Communist Party intends to keep itself in power. Will it rest on the support of the broader, especially middle-class, community? Or will China be turned into a 1950s, Latin American-style corporatist economy of state-linked firms, crony capitalists and princelings? The launch of Mainland-backed young tycoons’ clubs like the Y Elites Group and the Centum Charitas charitable foundation, dedicated to national unity and social harmony, suggests that Beijing feels a need to cultivate the scions. There’s a lot riding on whether Hong Kong will put up with getting ripped off by rich brats in the years ahead.