Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma Yun has offered a tip to fellow entrepreneurs: Love your government, but don’t get married with her. In the same breath, Wang Jianlin, chairman of Dalian Wanda Group, a property giant in China, said, “Get near to the government. Stay away from politics.” Their words of wisdom will perhaps find a good audience in Hong Kong’s business leaders at a time when a bitter row between the ruling Chinese Communist Party and democracy-supporters in the city has put them in a precarious situation.
Tycoons taken to task
Li Ka-shing, Asia’s richest man, knows better than anyone when he found him being singled out for criticism in an article carried in the official Xinhua news agency’s English website on October 25. It named Li and several others tycoons for not having spoken out against the Occupy Central movement, or what Western media has described as “Umbrella Revolution.” The others are Henderson Land’s Lee Shau-kee, Wharf Group’s Ng Kwong-ching and Robert Kuok of the Kerry Group.
The article said President Xi Jinping has urged the tycoons to stay united and cooperate with the Central Government, Hong Kong government and Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to work for a better tomorrow during a meeting with a delegation in Beijing on September 22. But it lamented that only former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, who led the delegation, has come out to oppose the Occupy Movement. Li has only called for students to return home, the article said, adding he has refrained from taking stance on the blockade protest.
Hours after the article hit the wire, it was removed from the website. Later in the day, Xinhua’s Chinese website released another article, in which the criticism against Occupy by Li, Lee, Ng and New World Development’s Henry Cheng Kar-shun were documented. Kerry’s Robert Kuok, it said, has also signed up for the campaign against the Occupy.
Damning with faint support
Xinhua’s de facto retraction of its report critical of the tycoons may have put the controversy to rest. It has exposed, nevertheless, the depth of anxiety among Beijing leaders about the fragility of the Leung administration. At a time when the government was facing a showdown with the pan-democrats ahead of their launching of the Occupy Central movement, Xi resorted to the ruling party’s longstanding tactic towards the city by rallying support from the pro-establishment force, which is composed of tycoons and leaders of various sectors. By rolling out the red carpet for the delegates at Zhongnanhai, Xi was keen to show the importance they attached to the delegation in return for their loyalty and backing for the beleaguered Leung administration.
According to media reports, Xi urged the delegates to adhere to fundamental principles and take into account the nation’s overall interests when it comes to matters relating to state sovereignty, security, developments and the city’s long-term prosperity and stability. He called on the delegates to give full support to the Chief Executive and the government to govern in accordance with the law and to play a leading role in safeguarding a good business environment. In the report, Xi did not specifically refer to the Occupy movement, which was kick-started on September 28.
If delegates had found Xi’s directives vague and rhetorical, they have proved to be seriously wrong in the light of the Xinhua’s first report about tycoons’ “mute” response to the Occupy and a more recent saga surrounding a pro-business political party leader James Tien Pei-chun.Tien called on Leung to consider stepping down in view of his unpopularity and the foreseeable difficulties in governance because of the protracted Occupy uproar. Tien was given the boot from the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the nation’s top advisory body, for having breached their resolution backing Leung’s governance.
Speaking to reporters after the expulsion, Tien explained he had forgotten his role as a CPPCC member when he spoke. Tien, a legislator representing the New Territories East geographical constituency, stood by his call for Leung to resign, which he said was based on an objective analysis of Leung’s situation.
The plight of Tien and the embarrassment faced by the prominent tycoons have shed some light on the oddities and difficulties of leading business people and the pro-establishment camp confronted by an increasingly complex socio-political scene. Tien may genuinely believe, as do a considerable size of the populace, the resignation of Leung could help ease the political tension in the society and in mainland-Hong Kong relations. But against the background of dissenting voices (both real and perceived) from within the pro-establishment camp against Leung’s leadership since he took power 29 months ago, Tien’s call shocked the Beijing leadership, prompting them to axe him to deter others from challenging the authority of Leung and, more importantly, Xi.
Politics are icky
Flash back to the 1980s. Amid a confidence crisis, the then-Beijing leadership, under the helm of the late patriarch Deng Xiaoping, gave assurances to local capitalists their interests would be protected after the communist takeover in 1997. About the same time, they were encouraged to step up political participation and to form political parties to contest direct elections. More than 30 years on, the development of pro-business political parties has left much to be desired. Leading business figures have been reluctant to dip into turbulent political waters.
Occupy Central is an example. Tycoons have tried to tread a fine line echoing Beijing’s opposition against the movement while not going too far to make themselves an easy target of angry protesters. This is because, in no small part, underlying the protestors’ demand for true universal suffrage is a list of grievances over social inequality, income disparity and specific complaints such as high property prices that many blame, wrongly or rightly, on alleged tycoons’ influence on government.
No man can serve two masters
Championing a pro-business platform, the Liberal Party has stuck to their pursuit of geographical constituency seats in the Legislative Council while keeping their strongholds in some functional constituencies. Tien has learned a lesson from the expulsion from CPPCC that he cannot get the best of both worlds when it comes to the fate of CY Leung. Despite the unpopularity of Leung, Tien was given a harsh reminder he and the Liberals must follow the Communist Party line to back Leung.
Caught in the crossfire of conflicting interests between Beijing and a significant portion of the populace, business leaders with a web of complex interests in the mainland found themselves in an increasingly vulnerable situation. Make no mistake: They remain the prime target of Beijing’s united front efforts. But they are faced with more demands to roll up their sleeves to defend their interest and that of the central authorities.