For new mainland elite, Hong Kong's financial future is personal

The creation of a government body to promote the city's financial market is another step towards a goal for a group with growing stake in the city

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 January, 2013, 5:12am

In 2009, a group of mainland financial professionals in Hong Kong put their names to an opinion piece calling for a new government entity to beef up and promote our financial market. Nobody listened.

They pushed on. They talked to officials and Leung Chun-ying, who was then tipped to make a run for the top job. They started a column in a financial daily to make their views known.

Early last year, they formed a bigger coalition - the China Financial Association of Hong Kong - with Levin Zhu Yunlai, the son of former premier Zhu Rongji, as one of its top advisers - and made a formal proposal on the issue to Leung in the chief executive election. They didn't hesitate to make this public.

On Wednesday, Leung announced the creation of just such an entity - the Financial Services Development Council. Five mainlanders, including three of the association's affiliates, have a quarter of the seats on the board (see list).

Will the council become another consultative body that produces nothing but reports, as some have predicted? I don't think so.

This is a group of Hong Kong-based mainlanders who have a genuine personal interest in the city's financial development. This is a new breed, one very different from the traditional interest groups seen among government appointments to financial bodies.

Unlike the traditional red-chip, civil servant managers posted to Hong Kong, they don't see themselves as outsiders. Many have been here over a decade, are permanent residents and have made the city their base. And unlike local brokers who rarely look beyond Hong Kong, they have good knowledge of the world. Many either studied in top universities in the United States or Britain; or worked for years in international financial institutions.

Qin Xiao is a good example. The former chairman of China Merchants Group has a doctorate in economics from Cambridge University, spends most of his time in Hong Kong and is founding member the Hong Kong-registered private think tank, the Boyuan Foundation.

Most important, this new breed has a genuine interest in the development of Hong Kong's financial system, unlike foreign intermediaries. The interest is not out of love. It's out of business, big business.

Any mainland financial practitioner knows that liberalisation of the mainland financial markets will continue to be restrained. Their future is in the opening of gates that bar individuals from overseas investment. Their future is in Hong Kong.

It is not just about trading. To their employers, Hong Kong is also an international springboard for connections, experience, products and talent for themselves and their clients. Doing well in Hong Kong is about survival at home.

The number of mainland brokers in Hong Kong has grown from 19 in 2009 to 60 by the end of last year. To them, the bigger the Hong Kong financial market, the bigger their business will be.

Understandably, they want to see a more co-ordinated and forceful effort by Hong Kong to lobby Beijing to speed up liberalisation, install better infrastructure and expand financial products.

Understandably, as they say in one of their commentaries, they are frustrated with the "Hong Kong government's mode of operation", saying the authorities have "neither the vision nor the ability to come [up] with macro plans or targeted proposals for the central government on financial reforms and development".

The new government entity is their only way to break through. The vocal and critical mainlanders will ensure the council's voice is heard.

But their success depends on how well they communicate with Beijing, Hong Kong officials and the public. Given their connections and knowledge, the council will be able to advise on the right button to push in Beijing. But winning support from the officials and public is another thing. Despite their public commitment, officials are wary of the new powerbase. Some newspapers have already labelled it a club for princelings. After all, telling a Hongkonger there are different types of mainlanders is never easy.