Just above the door in the conference room on the top floor of S-Meg Tower – in the heart of the bustling central business district of Asia’s zippiest international financial hub – is a dark-framed black and white photo of an elderly man. He gazes at the camera stiffly, though with dignity, from the confines of an iron lung. He is the late founder of S-Meg Holdings, who built the conglomerate up from humble origins, before bequeathing it to his number-one son. This morning, I fancy, the old man has a slight sneer as he looks down upon his heir.
The Big Boss has just returned from Beijing, where he attended the annual National People’s Congress/Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference fancy dress party, followed by a mildly discreet visit to his fat Mainland mistress to recover from the ordeal. Even in a good year, the NPC/CPPCC session is a chore Hong Kong tycoons hate; they are dragged away from vital work to sit around in a hotel waiting for mainland delegates to finish their naps, so long, turgid meetings can begin, day after day. The only relief comes from the Hong Kong press corps, who, in exchange for quotes about state leaders’ Delphic remarks, provide fresh gossip from the Big Lychee. And the word from back home this year was nerve-racking.
“I really, really wish I hadn’t given Henry my nomination,” the Big Boss mumbles. He looks at the backlog of junk mail – Ms Fang the hunter-killer secretary weeds nothing out – strewn around on the shiny, triangular, good-feng-shui rosewood table. “Joseph Yam and David Li, they just kept calling me. Calling at night, at day, when I was in Singapore, when I was in Los Angeles. I just… couldn’t say no.”
I nod sympathetically. This is a sort of rehearsal of what he will say to CY Leung on March 28 or 29, or whenever the victorious Shandong-Transylvanian finally deigns to receive congratulatory tribute from those who so smugly and brazenly backed Beijing’s hand-picked Henry Tang. If it finally works out that way. If a grinning CY Leung makes the call to the establishment top dogs who hate him, and who were destined and entitled to have Hong Kong run by one of their own, before a last-minute illegal basement full of infidelities and bastard children came flying out of nowhere and turned the world upside down.
The messages are mixed. After 10 years of locking up Nobel-winning essayists, trendy artists and people who complain about poisoned milk, kindly Uncle Wen Jiabao says China needs democracy, freedom and apple pie. His comments on Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive are similarly uncertain. He could mean the most popular candidate will become Chief Executive; but he could be saying that the person who becomes Chief Executive will be the most popular – or we will run you over with a tank. I try to reassure the Big Boss with this cheering thought, but he is not convinced. It seems tantalizingly possible that the 7 million people of Hong Kong will get the casting vote.
The awful truth is that the dynamic, networking, string-pulling, access-enjoying leader of S-Meg Holdings may be in a state of having shoe-shined the wrong guy. It has never happened before, and it is the ultimate nightmare – a trap with no way out. Like waking up and finding yourself in a buried coffin. As he sifts aimlessly through the glossy newsletters and tacky invitations, he wonders aloud how he can avoid whatever vengeance CY as Chief Executive would wreak on him.
“I need to reach out. What about that factory in Indonesia we bought from those Chiu Chow people – the one that makes durian-flavoured cigarettes for children. Surely CY has a nephew who’d like it for a very good price, as a token of my esteem. It’s got the whole market sewn up.”
I try not to look skeptical. “The problem is… CY doesn’t, um…”
“No,” the Big Boss admits. “If he did, we’d know by now.”
CY doesn’t do tokens of esteem. The future looks hellish. Just as Hong Kong’s leading conglomerates wouldn’t last five minutes on a level playing field, so their owners’ status and influence will evaporate if just a hint of inclusion and meritocracy intrude on the existing system of insiders, favouritism and cronyism.
“How will things work?” the tycoon wails. “How will anyone get anything done?”
The strange thing is that S-Meg, and S-Meg’s employees, and S-Meg’s clients would probably be better off in a Hong Kong where we could all spend less on overpriced real estate and other cartelized goods and services, and more on other, even fun, stuff – be it durian-flavoured snacks, health care or whatever. But we have had this conversation before. It’s not about economics. Not even that much about power. It’s about preserving the elite’s self-image as the elite. What are they without that?
The Big Boss takes a sudden interest in a shiny brochure advertising Versailles-style beachfront property in Hainan. His father surveys the scene, as if to say, “I always told you to keep away from politics.”