Funny we put so much trust in businessmen to plan our future

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 August, 2006, 12:00am

'Thirty business, academic and community leaders will meet next month to gather ideas on how Hong Kong can develop under Beijing's 11th five-year plan ... But there will be no representatives of political parties.'

SCMP, August 8

IT IS ACCEPTED Communist Party thinking. There can only be one party of the people and it is the Communist Party. Once it is in power there need be no other. All other parties are just fractious organisations set up to undermine the dictatorship of the proletariat.

This is not quite the way we would put it in Hong Kong, of course. Here we need to downplay that bit about the primacy of the Communist Party. Most of our bureaucrats would agree, however, that political parties are just fractious organisations set up to undermine ... hmmm ... to undermine ... hmmm ... Well, yes, set up to undermine what? Could we have this defined, please? Is it really thinking here that political parties are subversive, that, despite having won votes from the public, they are unrepresentative of the public and have nothing to contribute to a conference on Hong Kong's future?

Let us look at this from a different angle. We commonly take the view that Hong Kong is a business town and therefore it is only natural that businessmen should have a big say in how things are run.

It is immediately an odd notion in that every town in the world is a business town. Take away the business and you have no town. Ours may be a little different in that we concentrate more on trade services and finance but it is still no more a business town than any other.

The bigger flaw in the thinking, however, is the assumption that businessmen will work for the good of Hong Kong first and the good of their corporate interests second. It is again immediately an odd notion in that the legal obligations of corporate directors require the exactly opposite arrangement of loyalties. They must obey the law but within the confines of the law they are required to act in their shareholders' interests first. The shareholders can sue them if they don't. If we think they act against Hong Kong's interests we can wag a finger at them but we cannot sue them for it.

Look at any businessman who has reached a top position in a big company and you will find that the bulk of his time is taken up in dealing with government agencies to get the best possible operating conditions for his company. It is his job to do so. In his normal working day he stands against government, not with government.

Take just the first two businessmen whom our report said would be among those meeting on September 11 for this five-year plan talking shop.

Philip Chen Nan-lok is chairman of Cathay Pacific Airways, a company run by British interests. His job is to ensure that his airline makes as much money as it can from basing itself in Hong Kong. This traditionally has meant lobbying government to shut out other airlines from our airport, keeping air fares for Hong Kong travellers as high as possible and keeping airport landing charges as low as possible. He may now find this more difficult to do than his predecessors did but he is still under an obligation to his shareholders (including me indirectly through a Swire Pacific shareholding) to try to do it.

Now tell me that tight landing restrictions, high air fares and low returns from our airport are in the interests of the people of Hong Kong. Why is Mr Chen, who has his own partisan political axe to grind, an obvious choice for this talking shop when representatives of directly elected political parties are not?

The same goes for Vincent Cheng Hoi-chuen, the chairman of Hongkong Bank, again a company run by British interests. I am one of his bank's shareholders. His job is to work for me, to get his corporate profits up so that I can have bigger dividends and see the share price go up.

He has done that job quite well so far. That is why I am still a shareholder. The fact is, however, that the bank's shares have traditionally been one of the best investments in Hong Kong because its Hong Kong dollar deposit accounts have been one of the worst.

Keep it up, Vincent. That's why I have more money in HSBC shares than in HSBC deposits. But don't tell me that the good of the Hong Kong community comes before the good of HSBC to you. I applaud you if it does but then tell me first so that I can sell my shares. I have my loyalties to Hong Kong, too, but I bought HSBC for the money.

Here is the truth of the matter. We complain a great deal these days about our growing social welfare burden. We carry a bigger one, however, in the corporate welfare demands to which our government so easily falls prey.

Our businessmen all have their begging bowls in front of them for hand-outs from the public purse. I have no objection. It is their job to do so. But then I don't want to see their hands on the strings of the public purse as well.