Up until a couple of months ago, few of Hong Kong’s big business-establishment leaders gave a damn about the city’s youth. In the last few weeks, however, they have suddenly discovered a deep concern for the younger generation.
When former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa launched his Our Hong Kong ‘think-tank’, dozens of our great and good were moved almost to tears by ex-Financial Secretary Antony Leung’s description of how the kids face unaffordable housing and poor job prospects. Earlier this week, the Bauhinia Foundation released its Let Them Eat Hostels report on the same theme. And now tycoons like Vincent Lo and Allen Zeman clamour to spout the same stuff, with an emphasis on developing country parks, at a General Chamber of Commerce bore-fest on the future of Hong Kong. Zeman also spoke of a need for universal suffrage, and thus passage of the proposed political reform package for 2016-17.
The tycoons are worried, though perhaps not actually wetting themselves yet (mega-mogul Li Ka-shing saw it coming ages ago). Since the handover in 1997, Hong Kong’s Beijing-appointed administrations have handed them everything on a plate. Most obviously, officials have engineered a shortage of land supply to push property prices up, allowed floods of Mainland shoppers into town to push rents up, and splurged billions on pointless infrastructure projects to channel public wealth into tycoons’ pockets.
The little things add up, too. When he was Chief Executive, Donald Tsang introduced incentives for developers to build better features into their projects; in theory it was to improve our quality of life, but in practice it gave the cartel free rights to build more apartments, which ended up being sold to money-laundering Mainlanders to keep empty. And there were the inexplicable discretionary decisions and loopholes that came out of the planning bureaucracy to allow specific projects to grow in size.
The manifestation of public anger that is the Occupy-Umbrella movement raises the prospect that the plundering game might be up.
This may well be too much to hope – and there is an element of being careful what you wish for. But the tycoons’ sudden nervousness suggests that they at least are taking this seriously.
Assuming that pro-dem lawmakers veto the political reform package, we will have the same system as before – Beijing will pick the next Chief Executive, who will be ‘elected’ by the rubber-stamp committee of 1,200. And that person, under this scenario, will not be to the oligarchs’ liking. (As we saw in 2012, the tycoons are in a minority on the Election Committee and can be outvoted by the bloc directly controlled by Beijing.) It’s hard to imagine any of the pro-Beijing camp’s people having the leadership qualities or gravitas, so it could be some bland and presentable type from the bureaucracy. The key thing is that the lucky winner would be discreetly guided by Mainland officials in a distinctly more populist direction.
The tycoons are fearful because they know that the Chinese Communist Party has, as Lord Palmerston put it, no permanent friends, only permanent interests. The most fawning and groveling and odious shoe-shiner will be kicked in the teeth the minute he is of no further use (or that he provokes unrest that the CIA can exploit).
Paradoxically, a property crash could help keep the tycoon-bureaucrat crony-system in place, by easing the housing affordability problem and scaring private home-owners into demanding policies to prop up prices.
The government’s official line on this (though they don’t shout it out) is that apartments are many Hongkongers’ main store of wealth, and therefore lower prices are undesirable. The last time I checked, Secretary for Labour and (can’t make this stuff up) Welfare Matthew Cheung had eight properties in Hong Kong. So I re-check – it’s now nine. Put yourself in his shoes, and you can see how massively rising prices are absolutely fabulous, and the slightest drop in the market a disaster.
So Chief Executive CY Leung, not wishing to be outdone by our caring plutocrats, is proposing a new layer of subsidized housing for the latest socio-economic band to be priced out of the market. This is probably more PR-while-we-wait-for-whatever-happens than anything else. With prices at economically stupid levels, and 1 in 20 (or maybe more) apartments left empty by absentee owners, we might not strictly need vast amounts of additional units, just economic sanity. Either that or we all end up in subsidized housing, while the private stock sits there unoccupied.
Bottom line: the things that make the tycoons richer quite possibly bring their grip on Hong Kong under greater threat. Certainly, they seem to believe it.