The untouchables

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 September, 2010, 12:00am

Someone high up in government told me tycoon Lee Shau-kee is livid that the Tsang administration humiliated him by investigating his firm's possible wrongdoing involving the sale of luxury Mid-Levels flats. How true that is I don't know. But it's safe to say that Lee cannot be happy with the probe. This throws up a question: is he simply angry at being investigated or angry the government dares to investigate him?

If you state that Hongkongers are equal under the law, you'll probably get guarded agreement. But if you say that includes the tycoons, you'll get a cynical laugh. The tycoons, you'll be told, are an untouchable breed. That belief is so ingrained in our psyche that we treat it as fact.

We believe it to be a fact that Hong Kong's super-rich are too powerful and well connected to be touched. Last week's TV images of President Hu Jintao singling out tycoon Li Ka-shing for special treatment fit right into what we have long believed to be true - that Hong Kong is really two societies, one more equal than the other. We have the ordinary people and we have the elite who are allowed to play by their own rules.

Most people will have no trouble believing Lee is indeed livid, and it's because the government has dared to investigate his Henderson Land - one of Hong Kong's most powerful property firms.

But that doesn't mean our government is daring. No one would argue if you stated as fact that ours is a government that kowtows to the elite class. It is the public that is growing gutsy.

The public's patience with business-sector greed snapped when Henderson Land used only 'lucky' numbers for the floors of its luxury Mid-Levels block so it could demand higher prices. People thought it preposterous that the top floor of the 46-storey building could be marketed as the 'lucky' 88th floor. They saw it as yet another example of a compliant government letting the elite class play by its own rules.

They got even madder with Henderson's dubious boast that some flats in the building had fetched record prices. It was all this outrage that forced the government to go after Henderson. The government would never have dared on its own.

It has never bothered Hong Kong's elite that the people see them as having unfair privileges. The elite, in fact, have behaved as if they had a right to play by their own rules, aided by a submissive government. But what the public has for so long taken as fact is finally starting to spook the elite class, because the people no longer want to live with that fact. They want to change the fact that we have an elite class with its own rules.

Fury over Henderson Land's behaviour was just one of many rebellious shots we've seen lately. There's now a new buzz term that's frightening the elite. Some use the gentler version, which is 'anti-business sentiment'. Others prefer the harsher, 'hate the rich', version.

How do you tame long years of resentment that has turned to hate? Throwing money at it is the absurd idea from the former head of the pro-business Liberal Party, James Tien Pei-chun, who belongs to the elite class. Government handouts to the underprivileged, as he suggests, won't tame the rebellious mood Hong Kong's elite now face and fear. You can't cover up societal inequality with dollar bills.

Tien's suggestion shows how little the elite, and even the government, understand the ordinary people. They are not angry for money. They are angry at the inequality that has created the underprivileged class that Tien wants to appease with handouts. Trying to fix societal inequality with welfare handouts is the same as trying to lock in the inequality.

Public anger at Hong Kong's super-rich doesn't mean the people want total wealth parity. They understand that capitalist societies such as ours produce both rich and poor people. What they want is an end to a system that's so rigged it has produced some of the world's richest men while we have the widest wealth gap in the developed world.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster