Alibaba founder Jack Ma has nothing but affection for Hong Kong, to paraphrase a comment he made on Monday and rephrased the next day.
In fact, there’s no love lost between them.
And Hong Kong people couldn’t care less about his denial of any plans to live out his years in their fair city.
This is not the first time Hong Kong feels this way about the former school teacher from Hangzhou.
In July 2013, Ma said in an interview that Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping had made a wise decision to suppress the June 4 protesters in 1989, sparking outrage among Hong Kong people who demanded he apologize to the victims of the bloody crackdown.
Later, Ma’s insistence that Hong Kong change its listing rules if it wanted Alibaba’s business again angered many locals who accused him of using strong-arm tactics.
On Monday, while declaring “I love Hong Kong”, he weighed in on the political debate over Hong Kong’s democratic development, saying Hong Kong needs to change to prepare for the future.
The comment might have been well-intentioned but the timing was unfortunate.
Many Hongkongers said it smacked of Beijing’s unyielding mindset bent on forcing them into accepting fake universal suffrage.
Ma made the comment on the sidelines of a roadshow for Alibaba’s upcoming initial public offering in the United States, expected to be the biggest on record.
The Chinese e-commerce giant initially sought a Hong Kong listing but withdrew over regulatory issues.
“We missed the great opportunity to list in Hong Kong. I speak from my heart. I love Hong Kong,” Ma said.
It would have been enough if he stopped there.
Which is why he appeared insincere when he subsequently said he agreed that Hong Kong’s market regulator should not compromise its principles.
Many in Hong Kong quickly drew parallels between Alibaba’s tightly controlled corporate structure and Hong Kong’s restricted political process despite Beijing’s commitments to uphold one country, two systems.
Alibaba switched its listing venue to the US after regulators there agreed to a dual class shareholding structure that will allow Ma and his management team to keep control of the listed company.
In other words, Ma and his business partners have taken control of the outcome of the IPO, regardless of how much money it raises from the public.
Much like Beijing will decide who will lead Hong Kong.
The electoral reform package rubber-stamped last month by the National People’s Congress gives Beijing effective control of the process by choosing the candidates.
That will be done by a nominating committee likely packed with loyalists who will screen the candidates.
Pan-democrats deemed undesirable by Beijing (make that unpatriotic), ostensibly have no chance to be nominated.
The stringent screening is expected to leave two to three candidates but even so, each must have the backing of at least half of the nominating committee to qualify for election.
The comparison with Alibaba might be overwrought but it’s hard not to see the irony.
As for Jack Ma, he might have disappointed a few bankers and underwriters with his decision not to list in Hong Kong and a few private bankers with his denial of any plans to live here.
But as far as Hong Kong people are concerned, he can take his business elsewhere.
In their minds, he will not be a terribly good neighbor either.
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