'Cheap' memberships under pressure
The days of Hong Kong businessmen being able to secure Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference memberships on the cheap from far-flung western provinces could soon be over.
It has long been a widely-known ploy of smart Hong Kong businessmen to 'go West' in order to acquire prestigious political and social status on the mainland by becoming CPPCC members at local or provincial levels.
While qualifying as a national CPPCC delegate is often difficult and competitive, it is relatively easy to become one at provincial level - particularly if you are willing to travel for it. You may not be able to attend meetings in Beijing, but it does bring status. And there is no hard and fast rule that delegates must be locally-born: in theory, a Qinghai CPPCC member could be a Hongkonger or a Guangdong resident.
The CPPCC, nominally the country's top political advisory body, wields little actual political power. But being a CPPCC member does carry its perks and privileges, such as the opportunity to develop personal ties with local leaders, first-hand access to government information and special treatment from the police or customs officials.
It can even help your business at home. Fifteen years after Hong Kong was returned to China, most people have little knowledge of the workings of politics on the mainland: many see a CPPCC membership as foolproof evidence of its holder's good relationship with the 'central authorities.' And smart Hong Kong businessmen are quick to realise this and capitalise on the opportunities.
In the 1980s and 90s, many Hong Kong factory owners with investments in Guangdong could hope to acquire city-level CPPCC membership. Some even managed to land provincial-level membership, but as competition grew more intense, the smarter businessmen started to look west.
A retired CPPCC member in a western province recalled how a Hong Kong friend was delighted when he discovered how cheap it was to acquire CPPCC membership. 'When he realised that he only needed to put down a few million to be a local CPPCC member, his eyes lit up. He kept telling me how cheap it was when compared with Guangdong.'
For many Hong Kong businessmen, joining the CPPCC is like joining a gentlemen's club - an exclusive platform to rub shoulders with the rich and powerful and build connections and business opportunities.
'They seldom offer any policy advice or proposals ... At the meetings, they keep their mouths shut. They just treat it as a sort of chamber of commerce,' said the retired member.
The phenomenon has raised questions even within the CPPCC, with some local delegates grumbling about how it has lost its sense of purpose. 'There is growing concern that the CPPCC is getting too 'commercialised', particularly at city or provincial level,' he added. 'For local delegates, many of them are from different walks of life and some treat their work very seriously. But the vast majority of the Hong Kong delegates are just businessmen. They are not familiar with local affairs and show little interest in them.'
With a major reshuffle of the CPPCC membership due to take place next year, there are growing demands to widen the selection base and limit the number of businessmen taking up local seats.
'Many inland provinces in the past were hungry for foreign investment ... eager to attract investors and willing to accommodate their wishes,' said the retired member. 'Now it is time to move forward.'