Wealthy scions can bloom in the light
There are two, opposing views about the setting up of the Centum Charitas Foundation by a group of sons and daughters of Hong Kong's tycoons and political heavyweights. Sources close to the group were quoted in the media as saying that the Beijing-blessed initiative would counter the influence of the pan-democrats on social and political issues, in particular universal suffrage.
A prominent business leader, however, has cautioned against reading too much into it: 'Some of them are playboys,' he said. 'They are not interested in politics ... But, still, it is a good thing that they get together for charity.'
The truth perhaps lies somewhere in between. While it sounds simplistic that the foundation is just another charitable body studded with socialites, it is too early to tell if it will become a force to reckon with.
But if pundits have preferred to talk up the newly formed body, rather than downgrade its importance, it is because it has come about in the midst of profound changes.
Over the past few years, the central authorities have been keen to absorb second- and third-generation business leaders into the mainland's political structure.
Some have been appointed to sit on the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, at both national and municipal levels. Others, such as Bernard Chan and Michael Tien Puk-sun, have become deputies to the National People's Congress, following the election last Friday.
The message is clear: with the old generation of tycoons and political heavyweights fading from the stage of mainland-Hong Kong politics, their sons and daughters are being groomed to take their place.
From the early 1980s, patriarch Deng Xiaoping sought advice from tycoons, including shipping magnate Sir Yue-kong Pao and entrepreneur Cha Chi-min, on the 1997 question. Thirty years later, the Beijing leadership has moved to enlist the younger generation of key business and political players to participate in the mainland system.
If this reflects Beijing's move to cultivate closer ties with young business leaders, the foundation represents an important step for the business elites to put on a new face in society.
With the widening wealth gap in Hong Kong, and the lingering grievances of the underprivileged, there are growing concerns about the potential for social disharmony.
Leading businessmen have voiced fears about a growing sense of hostility in the community towards the sector. Tycoons have been accused of seeking unreasonable profit margins from a system that favours them at the expense of the have-nots.
In view of the deeply entrenched perception that the government panders to the interests of big corporations, relations between business and the rest of society will remain uneasy.
This is despite increasing efforts by businesspeople to show good corporate citizenship through responsible business practices and the funding of worthy causes.
As society becomes more complex and intertwined, greater interaction with the business community can only help correct misconceptions and reduce misunderstandings.
Taking into account Beijing's political tactics regarding Hong Kong affairs since the July 1, 2003 public rally, there is some truth in the theory that the central government is cultivating the next generation of tycoons to counter the influence of democrats. Cynics may also have good reason to ask whether such initiatives are more than just image-building exercises.
The mere fact that the young generation of leading businessmen has moved out of the shadow of their parents, to reach out to a wider segment of society, cannot be wrong. Never mind the motives behind it.
Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large