Not The South China Morning Post


James Tien: Not a Liberal At All - Dec 1998
James Tien: Not a Liberal At All

Winston Churchill once said that democracy is the worst form of government - except for all the others. Or words to that effect. 

His point was that you do, indeed, get terrible government when loads of stupid people are allowed to vote. These people are thick.  They don't understand economics, and they vote for things like welfare systems that wreck the country and make everyone worse off.  However, other ways of choosing leaders lead to things like Nazism.

Now, as if the 20th century had never taken place, Hong Kong has James Tien.  James Tien is the newly elected leader (from a field of, err, one) of the Liberal Party. 

If QQ remembers rightly, the party chose its name to make sure that the pro-democrats didn't grab it.  However, the "liberal" in the name is presumably the British 19th century word meaning pro-free market, not the 20th century American one meaning left-of-centre.  Even so, the party is misnamed.  In this day and age, classical liberal economics and democracy cannot be separated.  This why Japan is not a true democracy (no free market). 

It is also why Hong Kong is not a truly free market (no democracy).  And James Tien wants it kept that way.  He was interviewed by the SCMP - which accepted his opinions without question - on 10th December.  He stated "HK is a business city ... it should be led by elites ... the best brains are what we need." 

Most cities are "business" cities, give or take Pyongyang, perhaps. But let that pass.  The SCMP should have asked some questions, like: Is Tien himself one of this "elite"?  Is he one of those with the "best brains"? How do you measure these things? Who, if not the people, chooses them?

Tien places his faith in functional constituencies, small groups of CEOs who elect one of their own to sit in the Legislative Council to represent their business sector (eg insurance, construction, manufacturing, textiles or - in Tien's case "commercial 1").   Tien imagines that such people are "more capable, fairer and are able to consider things from the overall interest of the society, but not their self-interest" compared with democratically elected legislators. 

This is a joke.  The functional constituencies were devised specifically to push sectoral interests. No-one has ever suggested that they automatically produce higher quality legislators. Until Tien.

He dismisses democratically elected legislators as "mediocrats".  At first QQ thought this was an attempted reference to their reliance on the media, but, no - Tien is sneering.  He names two who, he implies, are obviously substandard as legislators because of the law firms they work for; he doubts the worth of another by questioning whether he is "outstanding" in his field of education. 

This shallowness reveals Tien's own mediocrity.  Did Abe Lincoln work for an "elite" law firm?  Was Harry Truman "outstanding" as a haberdasher?  Tien (and he is not alone in HK here) judges you by your wealth and other accoutrements - type of car, location of home, schools attended, size of wife's jewellery, etc.  Ability to acquire these is the only ability.  Lack of them is proof of inferiority.   

In particular, he criticises the 20 democratically elected members in LegCo on the grounds that "None of them have done well in business. They are not well-versed in economic development." He hopes that one day people (or "the grass roots sector" as he puts it) "will understand that they are electing a group of people to lead Hong Kong, who are able to create wealth."
The poor man is clearly confused. We do not elect leaders to create wealth.  And it does not follow that just because you can create wealth, you are fit to govern.

An interesting question: Who created Tien's wealth?  The SCMP article begins a paragraph by saying "Formerly a textile and garment businessman, ..."  So hundreds of people on piece work created Tien's wealth. The paragraph continues "... Mr Tien knows how his own business should be run.  He closed his factories in 1994 and shifted more into real estate and hotel investment."

Oh great.  So this genius knows how his business should be run.  He shuts it down and puts his money into the speculative bubble that went pop in 1997. That bubble made HK uncompetitive.  The high property prices did not represent the "creation" of any wealth - simply the transfer of wealth from those who created it to those who owned property. This is the sort of thing Tien wants to preserve.  QQ calls it feudalism; it has nothing to do with free-market liberalism. 

You could also call it hypocrisy.  Tien is now worried about the competitiveness of Hong Kong - as if it did not go into his pocket and those of other property players in the mid-90s.  He hints that the HK dollar's peg to the US dollar is one cause of this uncompetitiveness.  The implication being that he would like to see the currency devalued - presumably after he had shifted his own assets elsewhere.  Hey, that's how the "elites" in Russia, Indonesia and Zaire did it.

And he thinks the serfs aren't pulling their weight.  Businessmen are finding it harder to make profits from their investments, he tells the SCMP, not least because of "more and more labour benefits".

Tien's predecessor as leader of the Liberal Party was Allan Lee, who, to his credit, ran for LegCo in a democratic election at the election earlier this year. He lost. Proof, if you're Tien, that the people should not be allowed a vote in the first place.

Sadly for him, the Basic Law mildly disagrees and allows for more democracy in HK, gradually, in the years ahead. In the meantime, QQ will continue judging whether someone is "elite" according to their skills at crosswords.  Like this one: four letters, beginning with T, smells nasty when you step in it.  Any ideas James?