Leung Chun Ying

Alien thinking

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 May, 2012, 12:00am

There is a new dirty word in Hong Kong - populist. That's what some are fearfully labelling chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying. If Leung is indeed a populist, he's not saying. But his words and body language do lend some credence to the label. Why it stokes such unease among some goes to the heart of what we are, or, more precisely, what we think we are.

We are a capitalist society, wholly dependent on business for our survival. That's what has long been drummed into us. Business is what we do best. Politics gets in the way of business. If we just leave businesses alone to do whatever they want, we'll all prosper. That's been our bible.

It worked well at first. Free-wheeling capitalism created not just tycoons on Forbes' lists but also a wealthy middle class and a contented grass-roots class confident of climbing the upward mobility ladder.

But more and more people are now losing faith in the bible. They no longer think it works in today's politicised Hong Kong. It has made the elite wealthier than ever but has shrunk the middle class, enlarged the grass-roots class, stagnated wages at the lower end, and stunted upward mobility. It is no longer able to produce Li Ka-shings.

Leung, a self-made man who climbed the mobility ladder when it was still climbable, stepped into this mix with a new vocabulary and body language. He championed a minimum wage, affordable housing and a fairer share of the city's wealth for the grass roots. Days after his election win, he went further by questioning the merits of big market, small government. That, understandably, made the business elite choke on their champagne and caviar.

The dictionary defines populism as political ideas that represent the wishes of ordinary people, the people against the elite. A populist supports the rights and power of the people. This is alien to Hong Kong's survival bible. Business rules, not the people. Our colonial bosses and the business elite stuck faithfully to that. So did our first two chief executives, Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang Yam-kuen.

Will Leung tear up the bible? If yes, how much of it? He has made it clear that he'll run again in 2017 when universal suffrage kicks in. But that means having to win the votes of the masses, not just those of 1,200 in a small-circle election. To do that, Leung must change the public mindset that our leaders collude with and kowtow to big business. He must show that he dares to confront the tycoons, who have never trusted him anyway.

That means breaking with tradition. It means pandering to the masses for their votes and, if necessary, pitting them against the elite class. US President Barack Obama, in seeking re-election, is doing exactly that now with his call to tax the rich.

But being a populist leader in Hong Kong is at odds with our undemocratic political structure, and it clashes with our political reality that the business sector and bureaucrats define what's best for us.

We've never had a populist leader aside from, to some extent, Chris Patten, the last British governor. That is why suspicion of Leung being a closet populist has so unnerved the elite class.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV show host. mickchug@gmail.com