The twin mystical cults of Li Ka-shing and special Mainland zones come together on today’s front pages.
Asia’s richest man has enjoyed great success over the decades in operating, buying and selling monopoly and cartelized businesses and utilities around the world. He has often been brilliant at it, but it is hard to see how much actual wealth he has created or innovation achieved. If he hadn’t built/owned/traded this or that housing estate/port/retailer, someone else would have.
Yet when he opens his mouth, the media and much of Hong Kong obediently listen, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he carefully avoids saying anything of either substance or sense. He would like to blast Chief Executive CY Leung for pulling the plug on Hong Kong’s long-running real-estate scam with special stamp duties, but he can’t. Instead, along with inevitable blather about the property market, he proclaims that his giant holding companies will remain in Hong Kong, that Shanghai’s super-exciting free-trade hub-zone will have a huge impact on the Big Lychee and that the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement is a bad idea.
Has anyone ever seriously suggested that Li might relocate Hutchison and Cheung Kong somewhere else? Somewhere – almost inevitably – where corporate taxes would be higher, cartels illegal and red tape far worse? Li Ka-shing Inc. is more stuck in this city than the rest of us. We should be so lucky, if price-gouging supermarket and housing monopolies should suddenly depart these shores. But no. The media urgently convey the great man’s benevolent assurances that his conglomerates will stay, the implication being that without him we are somehow doomed. No-one questions it.
As for Shanghai’s free-trade zone, no-one has a clue what it will do, so it is impossible to estimate its effect on Hong Kong, free-trade paradise since 1842 and 800 miles away. In theory, it should enable foreign financial and other institutions to come in and sell goods and services, and thus compete with and maybe decimate China’s state-owned banks and other companies. In theory.
Some say Mainland cities’ hub-zone-gimmicks are local officials’ desperate attempts to grab forbidden regulatory advantages; others wonder if they are just schemes to push up land prices. A third (admittedly coincidental) possibility is that they are being used to scare Hong Kong. We recall the Great 2006 Hong Kong Marginalization Panic Hoohah, when all our favourite officials and tycoons suddenly started warning that the city was about to be cast adrift, forgotten and left behind to whither and collapse into dust. And then they suddenly stopped. We never did learn what that was all about. But the hub-zone-threat seems to be serving a similar purpose: if you don’t behave, if you don’t cheer up and act like CY is a dazzling success, if you don’t cut out this Occupy Central thing, then, after dark, when you’re alone in your bed, the zone-hubs will emerge from the closet, and come… to get you.
The Standard, either through careless layout or sheer over-eagerness to please Beijing, puts all this stuff on one page. As well as Li Ka-shing’s veiled threats, we get Beijing’s Hong Kong Affairs chief Wang Guangya suggesting that the Big Lychee’s (alleged) decline versus Singapore is your fault, not just some weird and inexplicable thing that started at some indefinable point in the 1996-98 era. And we get a Mainland investment bypassing Hong Kong shock horror, as if we wanted/needed their money, with one Liao Qun of Citic Bank expressing alarm, and the reporter even managing to connect the phenomenon (probably some capital-control-dodging thing anyway) with – you guessed it – the Shanghai free-trade zone.
While Hong Kong is supposed to tremble and obey, the real fear, insecurity and paranoia behind all this are not hard to find: evil reactionary foreign forces are preparing to take control of the Big Lychee in 2017, to topple the Chinese Communist Party, subvert the Shanghai free-trade zone, and steal the secrets of Park N Shop’s commercial success. Beijing is scared; you have to be, too.