Fine print on businessmen

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 May, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 May, 1996, 12:00am


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It is really most unfair that those of us who seek to make an honest crust by scribbling mildly amusing commentaries on local life should be subjected to amateur competition from people who do not need the money.

Local business leaders are rich already. They should not indulge in facetious posturing.

Still, as jokes went it was a good one. Of course, I realise that to justify complaining about the Governor one has to find a matter of great seriousness and pith.

'Jeopardising the future of Hong Kong' is the mere small chance of political discourse at this level.

To get more bang for the buck you have to wheel out words such as 'integrity', 'honesty' and 'reputation'. So we were all treated to the view that His Excellency's careless words in Newsweek had impugned the integrity of local businessmen, cast slurs on their honesty and marred their international reputation.

The reason why this joke works so well is because Hong Kong businessmen do not have an international reputation - or rather they have one but you will have to work quite hard to make it much worse.

I suppose this is going to come as a bit of a blow to the worthies who were letting off steam last week, but the harsh fact is that businessmen as a group are not regarded in most places as a particularly virtuous lot.

They are a large group, after all, and in any large group there will be some sheep of each colour. Business people are a variegated crowd distinguished only really by the fact that their outstanding qualification is greed.

People who have real skills such as doctors, dentists, builders or bankers may be in it for the money, but we recognise some other motivations as well.

This leaves the 'businessman' label reserved for those who will do virtually anything which turns a buck. It is, I am afraid, also generally accepted that the insertion of the word 'honest' after 'anything' in the last sentence will be grossly optimistic.

No doubt some businessmen are models of integrity, honesty and fair-mindedness. The fraternity also includes a variety of thieves, fraudsters, insider-traders, lemon salesmen, bucket shoppers, quack medics and 'your cheque is in the post' artists.

Theman, who built the Empire State Building, was a businessman. So were the ingenious individuals who have since succeeded in 'selling' it to gullible visitors from other countries.

It would be nice to think that Hong Kong businessmen were exceptions to this general rule, that when the words 'Hong Kong businessman' fall on foreign ears they conjure the vision of a smartly-dressed individual in a three-piece and halo, with harp and wings barely concealed by his expensive threads.

It would be nice, but it would be wrong. No doubt international perceptions of Hong Kong businessmen are not particularly accurate. That is no reason for shutting our eyes to the fact that they run in the direction of money-laundering, arms smuggling, watch-copying and the supply of cheap souvenirs with 'memories of Skegness' inscribed on their bottoms.

The international observer meeting a Hong Kong businessman for the first time is unlikely to wonder if he is being introduced to a candidate for beatitude.

He is more likely to wonder if he is being introduced to a candidate for Incense Master of the 14K triad.

Many foreigners, reading that Hong Kong's business leaders of the more ostentatiously timid persuasion have overseas passports in their back pockets, will be cherishing the devout hope that the effort to appease China is a success.

Hong Kong as a society illustrates a point often made at the individual level. If you want to get rich you have to work at it, and this means putting a very high priority on wealth as an objective.

In the 1980s, when people had more time for these things, it was customary to bewail the resulting decline in other values, the spiritual poverty of a society which recognised no standard of personal value except money.

The mercenary ethos was blamed for the alienation of youth, the rudeness of adults, the decline of the family and the lack of community spirit generally.

This is not now regarded as a major problem because Hong Kong has more immediate dangers to worry about. Still, businessmen who are rushing to surrender to China on behalf of the rest of us should not suppose that their other activities are regarded as invariably praiseworthy.

The creation of wealth is a necessary activity. So is the disposal of sewage. That does not mean we have to like the smell.