It would be surprising if the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, founded in 1861, were not pro-establishment. In many ways, it is the establishment, or at least a major traditional pillar of it. But during the journey from, say, 1970s colony to 2010s Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong’s ruling class was transformed. The Westerners who once dominated the hierarchy were largely displaced by local Chinese, while pro-British tycoons and officials had to awkwardly – not always convincingly – reinvent themselves as having been patriotic sons and daughters of the dragon all along. (The one constant has been the status of the devout local Communist Party loyalists, who have been social outcasts all along, though now tolerated in small doses for symbolic reasons. Mainland officials, conversely, have gone from public enemy/security risk status to demigods worshiped unconditionally by the great and good.)
At the same time, relations between business and government have gone from correct, detached and sometimes mutually suspicious to almost so intertwined as to become one vested interest pitted against the rest of the population. Hardly a coincidence, needless to say.
So in the case of the HKGCC, it has been bye-bye Sir Jimmy MacGregor (ex-military Brit 50s-60s civil servant who fought corruption and became Chamber director), hello Lily Chiang (tycoon’s daughter who became Chamber chairman in 2007 before getting imprisoned for fraud). OK – this might be a bit unfair: a better comparison would be with the current Chamber chief executive, ex-bureaucrat Shirley Yuen, but we need to spice the story up. We can see the transition taking place in a letter from tycoon’s kid James Tien, today of the Liberal Party, disowning MacGregor as the Chamber’s man in the Legislative Council in the early 90s. (We’re not trying to get dewy-eyed and nostalgic here; it’s a jolt to remember that colonial-style rule continued so long and thus became so anachronistic.)
So it’s no surprise to find the HKGCC today dutifully joining in the pro-Beijing United Front effort to smear the organizers of the harmless and well-intentioned, if naïve, Occupy Central movement. The strongest outburst comes from the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, which will endorse anything China’s local officials ask it to; a few years back, it mounted a turgid public education campaign on the evils of the Falun Gong. The line it is pushing this time is that a bunch of people sitting in the street singing We Shall Overcome will mysteriously shut down the stock exchange, which in turn will mysteriously cause the economy so much harm that we will never recover. HKGCC members silently endorse this twaddle without a murmur, but then their gutsier forebears had fought the Japanese, the Communists and corrupt cops.
Not that it hugely matters: when was the last time anyone took any notice of the HKGCC? The American Chamber, presumably because many of its members are expats being rotated through town, is less interested in politically correct shoe-shining and more outspoken on things like air pollution.
What is interesting is the Occupy Central people’s reaction to this contrived and laughable attack. They should mock the business groups for being used as puppets and spouting ridiculous slogans about extremism and economic damage. Instead, they respond on their poodle-critics’ own idiotic terms – terms calculated to alarm passing members of the public – and are reduced to claims not to be anarchists. A battle between an alliance of Communist cadres, selfish bureaucrats, inherited wealth and shoe-shining hangers-on on the one hand, and nice, polite, middle-class academics and lawyers on the other was never going to be pretty.