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World & Nation

China gets silence from Hong Kong tycoons instead of vocal support

Hong Kong student protesters
Students catch up on their studies at a protest site in Hong Kong this week. The city’s tycoons appear to share protesters’ concerns about economic disparity.
(Jerome Favre / European Pressphoto)

With a $32-billion fortune and business interests as diverse as supermarkets and ports, Asia’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, would seem to have little to fret about. But as the Hong Konger told a class of graduating students in the summer at mainland China’s Shantou University, he’s kept up at night by worries over his city’s yawning wealth gap.

The government needs “dynamic and flexible [wealth] redistribution policies” and should invest more in education, the 86-year-old said in an address titled “Sleepless in Hong Kong.”

“We need to act now,” he exhorted his young audience.

The concerns troubling Li are among those that have echoed through the night in Hong Kong this fall as protesters, many of them students, have taken to the streets to demand change. Although their primary goal has been greater democracy — a sensitive topic that Li studiously avoided in his speech — they also have fretted about their economic prospects and the state of education.

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When the demonstrations erupted in late September, many people — particularly leaders in Beijing — expected power brokers like Li to come out firmly and forcefully against the sit-ins and call for a quick return to the status quo. After all, the territory’s business elite has enjoyed a cozy and profitable relationship with government officials since the former British colony reverted to Chinese rule 17 years ago, reaping massive windfalls as closer ties with the mainland set the city’s property market on fire and supercharged other sectors of the economy.

But that calculation may have underestimated the tycoons’ support for Hong Kong’s more Westernized traditions, and their distaste for its government leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

To protesters in the streets, Leung is Beijing’s man, a representative of anti-democratic forces. But a majority of the region’s billionaires have long seen him as a populist, an up-from-poverty arriviste who doesn’t share their background or values.

Over the weekend, James Tien, a local legislator and head of the pro-business Liberal Party, called on Leung to resign, becoming the first such establishment figure to do so. Beijing’s displeasure at this became manifest Wednesday, when Tien was expelled from the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a prestigious government body.

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Tien’s call may only reinforce notions in Beijing that the billionaires who were supposed to have the Communist Party’s back are instead engaging in an internecine battle, some observers said.

“I think the way the mainland is seeing it is that the real face of the struggle has been revealed,” said Michael DeGolyer, a professor of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. “And this is not a Hong Kong-mainland battle; this is a tycoon-tycoon battle.”

“This is probably also why [Beijing] is being fairly noninterventionist; it was supposed to be tycoons running Hong Kong,” DeGolyer added. “So clearly I think they’re interpreting this as an internal struggle in which the pro-democracy movement is either an unwitting dupe, being manipulated, or actually an arm or branch or acting element being encouraged by one of the tycoon factions.”

None of this is to suggest that the tycoons have been out in the streets alongside the protesters. For the most part, they have said nothing publicly about the unrest, and it is impossible to know what they are thinking or saying in private.

A fair number of Hong Kong’s 1% may be unsympathetic to the Occupy Central demonstrations and simply don’t want to say anything to offend their hometown customers. So far, the sit-ins have hurt the pocketbooks of taxi drivers, restaurateurs and some retailers, but spared the stock exchange and property market.

“The big boys are doing OK; their businesses have not been hurt,” said Willy Lam, a Hong Kong-based political analyst. Li and other billionaires “have called on the students to leave, but they have not used excessively heavy or colorful language to scold them. It’s obvious that they realize that the students have substantial support among the population. So I think they are playing it both ways.”

China’s communist leaders appear to be chafing at the silence. Last weekend, the state-run New China News Agency published an article-cum-plea headlined, “Hong Kong tycoons reluctant to take sides amid Occupy turmoil.” The story lamented that former Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa was nearly alone among the wealthy in voicing opposition to the protests.

Li had urged protesters to go home “but did not make it clear whether or not he agrees with the appeals of the protesters,” it said. “Other Hong Kong tycoons have all remained mute.”

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There may be intrigue behind their silence.

Two years ago, Li and many of his peers backed Leung’s rival, Henry Tang, for the city’s top job. Tang, the son of a Shanghai textile baron, was seen by many of Hong Kong’s elite as cut from the same cloth. Leung — the son of a police officer, raised in public housing — was regarded as more populist and unpredictable, despite having made millions in the real estate and surveying businesses.

Ultimately, Beijing signaled its preference for Leung after Tang was hit by scandals over an affair and illegal additions to his mansion. Still, Leung managed to get only 689 votes from the 1,200-member committee of movers and shakers that chooses the chief executive.

“C.Y. Leung has never had the support of these tycoons,” Lam said. “So it’s highly possible they see this as an opportunity to settle old scores.”

So far, there’s no indication that the wealthiest tycoons have supported the demonstrators financially, though the city was abuzz this week with revelations that Occupy Central With Love and Peace, one of the key protest groups, received $166,000 from one anonymous donor.

But at least one protest leader believes their reticence to speak out may be a sign of tacit support.

“It seems that the Chinese Communist Party is not allowing people to remain silent. This may be the communist way of doing things, but I think [the elites’] acquiescence speaks loads about how they feel about the Occupy movement,” said Alan Leong, leader of the pro-democracy Civic Party. “They may think and feel as strongly as we do that the present system does not work. And if it continues, Hong Kong will become ungovernable.”

Special correspondents Tiffany Ap and Echo Hui in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

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