Why China is taking a critical look at Hong Kong's tycoons

September 17, 2019 11:46
China sees the housing crisis as one of the root causes of the social unrest in Hong Kong. Photo: Reuters

More than three decades ago when China set up a special committee to draft Hong Kong’s Basic Law, its attitude toward the business elite was unmistakable, as 12 of the 23 Hong Kong members that it picked were tycoons. To be sure, there were legal experts, educators and even clergymen, but the business elite dominated.

In the ensuing decades, Beijing continued to favor Hong Kong’s tycoons, appointing many to key advisory positions. In turn, the tycoons constituted a major pro-establishment force in Hong Kong.

But this is now changing, and fast. Today, after months of anti-government protests, China sees the tycoons, primarily property developers, as people responsible for the city's grave socioeconomic injustices, which are sending young people into the streets.

Last Friday, three state media outlets published commentaries singling out unaffordable housing as a “root cause” underlying the current protests, which began in June in opposition to a proposed extradition law. The state media involved were the Xinhua news agency, the People’s Daily and Global Times.

Xinhua reiterated China's position that “the top priority for Hong Kong is to stop the violence.” But it added: “We must pay close attention to the deep-seated contradictions and problems in Hong Kong in a timely manner, and take effective measures to solve them, completely eliminating the root causes of social unrest.”

The People’s Daily commentary took a tough line, calling on real estate developers to show goodwill and “act in the public interest” instead of trying to squeeze “the last penny” from their land hoardings.

The state media were responding favorably to a proposal last Wednesday by the pro-Beijing political party Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) in which the party called on the government use the Land Resumption Ordinance to expropriate land owned by developers to build affordable housing for young people. Developers are believed to own a huge land bank of 1,000 hectares of abandoned farmland in the New Territories.

The DAB move and the state media responses may well be part of a political ploy to gain votes in the November district council election. After all, such a proposal was earlier made by the Democratic Party and opposed by the DAB, which now fears losing seats because of its support for the government in the extradition bill saga.

The People’s Daily commentary applauded the DAB. It said many young people “who did not care about politics” took part in the protests because of the housing issue. “Hong Kong,” it said, “can’t wait any longer.”

China’s state media is not only telling property developers what to do, it is also telling the Hong Kong government what steps to take. Beijing is acting like someone who is tired of being a backseat driver and now wants to climb into the driver’s seat.

Indeed, China has been able directly to affect events in Hong Kong. Cathay Pacific has been one of the first casualties. The airline originally said that it would respect staff who took part in protests. But, after Chinese aviation regulatory authorities told Cathay that no staff member who had taken part in “illegal protests” would be allowed to enter Chinese airspace, the airline was forced to reverse its position.

Within Hong Kong, MTR Corporation, which provided a highly acclaimed railway service, has found itself caught in the middle between protesters and the Chinese government. After it was accused by Chinese state media of providing trains to enable protesters to get away, the railway operator responded by closing subway stations and calling in the police to remove protesters. As a result, enraged protesters have been wreaking havoc in train stations, sometimes forcing the closure of entire routes.

Last week, Reuters reported that China had, at a meeting in Shenzhen, called on representatives from nearly 100 of the biggest state firms to play a more active role in Hong Kong, including stepping up investment and asserting more control of companies.

The state-owned enterprises pledged to invest more in key industries, including real estate and tourism, in a bid to create jobs and stabilize financial markets, the news agency reported.

While Beijing may be acting entirely out of goodwill towards Hong Kong, helping it resolve a seemingly intractable problem through its control of corporations, from the point of view of Hong Kong, the average person and tycoons alike, such efforts may well look like more interference by the Chinese government in their affairs.

Good intentions, it should be remembered, can pave the road to many different destinations.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.