Giving money a bad name

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 November, 2010, 12:00am

A quite remarkable transformation has occurred in Hong Kong where wealth creation and wealth creators were once widely admired but have come to be viewed with suspicion or something worse. How has this happened?

It is hard to pinpoint when this turnabout occurred but we do know how the admiration for wealth arose.

In a largely immigrant society, people learn to be self-reliant and show great respect for those pulling themselves out of poverty by their own efforts and demonstrating a flair to get things done.

In Hong Kong, things were skewed by the presence of a colonial government, which sort of comprised the ruling class but was made up of transient bureaucrats, most of whom could not even speak the language of the people they governed.

Adjacent to this group was a smattering of old Hong Kong money and, after 1949, an infusion of rich Shanghainese who came to dominate the business world.

It took another three decades before other local people started to make their mark and began filling the leading roles which had been the preserve of outsiders.

The clock showed every appearance of being turned back when Beijing selected a scion of one of the old Shanghai tycoon families to serve as Hong Kong's first chief executive in 1997.

The fact that a farcical election was held to confirm Tung Chee-hwa in office did nothing to assuage misgivings which were quickly vindicated by his performance.

Astonishingly, Beijing is again contemplating selecting another member of this decaying Shanghai elite as the third chief executive.

Whether Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen will get the job remains to be seen but the fact that he is a prime contender says a lot about the mindset of Hong Kong's real rulers.

But it is not politics or the assumption of high office that preoccupies most people; they are concerned with more basic issues.

None are more basic than housing in a society where the property market is dominated by a tiny cartel of tycoons who seem to be able to get the government to do whatever they want.

The net result is that ordinary people cannot afford to buy their own homes, new legislation has helped the tycoons force owners of old properties to make way for the developers, and even government bodies seem to be working hand in hand with the cartel to create homes fit only for the wealthy.

Yet even this does not fully explain the growing mood of distaste for the tycoons. Many people still admire those who have created fortunes by their own efforts. But they are less likely to admire their sons (it is mainly the sons who inherit) whose accident of birth has pushed them into commanding positions, which they assume with an arrogance and lack of self-awareness, demonstrating contempt for anyone careless enough to have been born in more humble circumstances.

Add to this a growing sense of collusion between the bureaucrats in government, the tycoons and the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party and, although most people miss the terrible irony here, there is a strong sense of injustice.

Inequalities in wealth are accepted and hardly resented in Hong Kong but people will not accept the erection of seemingly insurmountable barriers preserving the riches of the wealthy and obstructing the passage of anyone else bold enough to think that they, too, can join the tycoon class.

And it's not wealth alone that is the issue but also a feeling that the tycoon class can do more or less anything they want. When a son of a tycoon is found guilty of serious drink-driving offences, he is accompanied to court by a bunch of fancy lawyers and given a non-custodial sentence. When planning elections for the new Legislative Council super constituencies, the rules seem to be explicitly designed to favour candidates with plenty of cash. And so on.

Hardly a day passes without news which appears to affirm the notion that the mega rich can get away with things which are strictly denied to ordinary people.

This week, newspapers reported how an executive from Cheung Kong, tycoon Li Ka-shing's parent company, wrote to the head of the Catholic Church to complain about a priest who had the temerity to criticise his boss.

This criticism was made in the public domain and a riposte rightly belongs in the same arena.

But this is not how things are done among the tycoon class who prefer to get their way in private, usually by going right to the top and making sure that things are put right according to their lights.

What's the bottom line here? The tycoons have managed to achieve something which has never been achieved in Hong Kong before - that is, to give capitalism a bad name.

The ghost of Karl Marx must be chuckling.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur