The South China Morning Post shows most of the city’s top property tycoons sitting in the Great Hall of the People. (Since you ask, L-R: K Wah Group’s Lui Che-woo, Wharf’s Peter Woo, Kerry Group/SCMP’s Robert Kuok, Henderson Land’s Lee Shau-kee and Cheung Kong’s Li Ka-shing. Then there’s ex-Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and Chairman Xi Jinping.)
Sing Tao whittles it down to Lee Shau-kee, Li Ka-shing, Tung and Xi, plus what appears to be Zhang Dejiang of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee. Its stable-mate, the Standard, excises everyone except Li Ka-shing, Tung and Xi, giving the impression that no-one else was present; elsewhere, it carries a picture of its own owner Charles Ho (who was stuffed away at the back in the main assemblage), with shoe-shiners’ condescending and dimwitted thoughts on Hong Kong students’ political knowledge.
A list of all 70 ‘business representatives’ summoned to perform the Big Kowtow in Beijing appears here. There are four groups: tycoons and their deputies; members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference; business chamber types; and ‘professionals and others’. (There is some overlap, especially between the first two.)
The key figures in the popular mind, notably the property tycoons, are all in the first group. Many of these individuals are described as offspring of tycoons dead or alive (indeed alive and also on the list). Many others also inherited their business empires from family (or represent such owners), or in Mainlanders’ cases probably owe control of the empires to family and/or political connections. Indeed, at a glance, only HSBC jumps out as neither family-controlled nor overtly Chinese state-favoured (I might be missing a couple of others). Apart from the Mainland entities, the list is a cliché of colonial-era Hong Kong Chinese dynasties, along with their British (Swire), Iraqi-Jewish (CLP), Indian (Harilela) and Southeast Asian counterparts.
Leaving the recently ascended Mainlanders out of it (plus a handful of long-term loyalists), these tycoons were all assiduous grovelers towards the colonial power structure in the old days. In the 1980s, China’s Marxist-trained officials seemed to believe that Hong Kong’s richest people created, rather than skimmed off, the city’s wealth, and were therefore vital to its success post-1997. So Beijing started cultivating the tycoons, and – not being stupid – the plutocrats mostly started shifting their allegiances.
As well as preserving the city’s economic success, the Chinese government also wanted the tycoons as a support base. These are obviously two different roles. Over time, especially as the Big Lychee’s people have proved to be increasingly uppity, Beijing has come to value the tycoons for their loyalty rather than their (supposed) economic contribution. Meanwhile, China itself has embraced much of the cronyism and rent-seeking that makes Hong Kong more feudal than capitalist. So the tentacles are now probably everywhere: we don’t know how many Mainland leaders’ princelings are in commercial partnerships with Hong Kong tycoons, but it can’t not be happening.
As with the Beijing-Hong Kong political relationship, this is about inequality of power. Hong Kong’s tycoons need Beijing’s favour and approval, not the other way round. The Communist Party has a sword at the throats of our property, financial and media moguls. The Hong Kong tycoons have extensive investments on the Mainland – as well as their privileged cartels here – and none of this is safe. Anyone up there could go the way of Bo Xilai, or GlaxoSmithKline or Gao Zhisheng tomorrow, all the more so because the faction whose shoes you were shining 10 years ago might have given way to rivals.
Ultimately the Communist Party doesn’t do loyalty and friendship: the most assiduous sycophant gets kicked in the teeth without a second thought when they are no longer useful. Despite China’s evolution into a kleptocracy and all the cross-border cronyism that must take place, the Hong Kong tycoons’ interests must always come second to China’s control of Hong Kong.
Right now, the Communist Party, in its paranoia, sees its grip on Hong Kong threatened by a pro-democracy movement utilizing civil disobedience – which could spread over the border with unknown results. So our friendly neighbourhood plutocracy becomes a vital member of the United Front.
But imagine if Occupy Central was aimed not at achieving democracy but at ending the local cronyism, the cartels and the rip-offs. Perceiving the same threat to stability and control, Beijing would distance itself from the tycoons in an instant. This is basic enemy-of-my-enemy triangulation stuff.
Tragic bottom line: the pro-dem emphasis on full democracy keeps the property hegemony secure.