City's new mainland groups won't hide in the shadows
Last week, a new industry association was inaugurated. In a society where freedom of organisation is enshrined in the constitution, that should not raise any eyebrows.
But this was the Chinese Securities Association of Hong Kong. It is the first formal club of mainland securities houses operating in the city. Their parent companies are the top 19 brokerages on the mainland.
What is more important is that it is among a chain of mainland-related groups established in Hong Kong recently.
There is the Chinese Universities Alumni Association (Hong Kong) Financial Association - a group of mainland 'Ivy League' graduates working in financial institutions. It is headed by Zhu Yanlai, the daughter of retired premier Zhu Rongji.
There is the Hong Kong China Chamber of Commerce - a yet to be inaugurated group for mainland private entrepreneurs operating in Hong Kong. Its establishment has been instigated by the Central Government Co-ordination Office in Hong Kong.
Then there is the Hong Kong Association of Mainland Graduates - a group for young professionals who have graduated up north.
What an exciting trend!
OK, I can hear some of you say it is no big deal - this is not the first time a mainlanders' club has been formed. There is the decades-old Hong Kong Chinese Enterprises Association, which includes every red chip in town.
But this latest breed is different.
The traditional groups are low-profile if not secretive. You see and hear them only when a state leader is in town.
True, as corporations, members see little relevance of Hong Kong to their business.
'Our market is on the mainland. Hong Kong is no more than a place of listing or trading,' said the director of one red chip.
As individuals, they see themselves as outsiders.
'We are state officials working in Hong Kong. We can't even become permanent residents,' he added.
But for the latest financial-related groups, it is a different story. To them, Hong Kong is business, big business.
Over the past decade, mainlanders' ever-growing wealth and hunger for investment have lifted the market share of their brokers in Hong Kong from a negligible level to more than 9 per cent. There are 3,000 of them, entrusted with assets of HK$300 billion.
This market share can only increase as the country gradually opens the gates barring individuals from overseas investment, says Chinese Securities Association of Hong Kong chairman Tse Yong-hoi, who is also a deputy chief executive of BOC International, which is among the city's top three brokerages.
But don't let the figures colour your view. It is not only about getting a bigger slice of the cake.
To the mainland financial institutions that provide not just brokerage but all-round services, Hong Kong is a platform from which to go international in terms of connections, experience, product and talent for themselves and their clients. This is the driving force behind their growth and ultimate survival back home.
This strategic value is best summed up by the HK$3 billion price tag put on Taifook Securities Group by the country's No2 brokerage, Haitong Securities, in its latest acquisition move.
These veterans of China's corridors of power know one fact very well. That is, how much success they can milk from Hong Kong will very much depend on two interrelated things - how well Hong Kong develops its financial market and how much Hong Kong can get out of Beijing.
The result is a breed of interest groups that dare to be different.
They are open.
The Chinese Universities Alumni Association is a good example. It publishes monthly commentaries in local newspapers. It puts minutes of every meeting, including discussions with various government officials, online.
They are vocal, if not critical.
In one of the commentaries, China Everbright Holdings chief executive Chen Shuang said: 'The Hong Kong government's mode of operation has killed any creativity and passion. It does not have the vision and ability to come up with macro plans. Neither can it make targeted proposals to the central government on financial reforms and development.'
In a separate piece, Hai Tong (Hong Kong) Financial Holdings chief executive Lin Yong said: 'Financial markets compete on the efficiency of their facilities and services, yet in the past decade Hong Kong has underinvested in its trading systems and lags way behind rivals like Shanghai and Shenzhen.'
They have proposals.
Tse wrote in an article that a new government department should be formed with the sole responsibility of beefing up our financial market, given the increasing need of co-ordination between Hong Kong and the mainland.
They are not shy about their vested interests.
Both Lin and Chen have written that the Hong Kong government should lobby Beijing for special quotas for local or mainland brokers operating here so that their clients can invest in the A-share market.
They reach out.
The Chinese Universities Alumni Association made various Hong Kong heavyweights, such as Exco member Laura Cha Shih May-lung and widely tipped Chief Executive candidate Leung Chun-ying, their advisers.
It has had discussions with Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah.
The Chinese Securities Association has hosted lunches not just with government officials but also rival domestic brokers.
Most important of all, they know China and are ready to tell.
Chen wrote about the lack of understanding of Hong Kong among mainland bureaucrats and how that jeopardises the city's ability to lobby for new initiatives.
I don't know about you, but I have not heard any of these kind of public comments or seen any of these actions from a domestic player, be it a local broker or political heavyweight, for many years.
These are not people who will sit and wait for hand-me-downs. They are here to shape the policy and future of the Hong Kong market for their own interests.
How they will tilt the balance of our financial arena, which at the moment favours domestic brokers politically and foreign institutions financially, will be very interesting to watch.
In the meantime, they are playing it low-key. When I asked Tse how he saw his association's role in the formulation of policy, he said: 'We will be the passive opinion-giver.'
Will the association put up a candidate for the next election to the Hong Kong exchange board?
'We will play by the election rules,' he said.
Hmm ... I smell a new, fresh power base.