Business community must play active role in democratic development

Thomas Yasuda says its time for Hong Kong's business community to set aside self-interest and political detachment, and to support the public by standing up for democracy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 July, 2014, 5:51pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 July, 2014, 2:05am

Words reflecting fundamental ideas have power. The great issue at hand for the people of Hong Kong, and ultimately for the rest of China, is the meaning of the enunciated term broadly representative in Article 45 of the Basic Law that states in part: "The ultimate aim is the selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures."

By fostering rather than resisting the tyranny of limited choice, the advert of the Big Four accountancy firms decrying Hong Kong's pro-democratic Occupy Central movement was a mistake. Instead of second-guessing their intentions, the business community should show Beijing's ambivalent decision-makers what is possible. China itself is not monolithic; and the task of business leadership is not to kowtow to misguided politicians but to enlighten them.

We have all been here before and should not repeat the mistake as businessmen to lead from behind. Before the transfer of custody by two great parent nations of their most rambunctious and productive offspring, Hong Kong was dealing with the same political crisis as now: the course of its democratic development. Hong Kong's unique status and historic role, leading to a more inclusive and democratic China, is now being undermined.

When I was a senior executive of First Pacific, one of the most difficult lessons we learned at what we fondly called the University of First Pacific was our then-young enterprise's capacity to act with foresight in matters relating to capital formation, but being too circumspect in the political domain. We, too, underappreciated the importance of having a political conscience when operating in places in accelerated transition.

It is sometimes observed that the hard edge of decisive action is attributed to the West and a softer approach to be more descriptive of the East. A telling personal exchange reveals the fatuity of that stereotyped dichotomy about core values that are universal and without geographic distinction.

In the contentious period before the handover, my spouse was co-chairwoman of the ladies' committee of the Hong Kong Philharmonic sponsoring a charity event with Chris Patten, Britain's last governor of Hong Kong, and his wife, Lavender, as special guests. While impolitic, I could not resist the opportunity of being in convivial contact over dinner to emphasise that the political rhetoric between Britain and China was disconcerting to the local business community.

I suggested, for most Hong Kong businessmen who had to work with the mainland Chinese after the handover, there was a perceived value in doing things the "Asian way". When governor Patten asked what that meant, I took refuge in an equally vague statement about the value of operating within "a band of ambiguity so long as the general direction was correct". The governor registered his disagreement by facial expression, but declined to comment. However, Lavender Patten, a forthright person in her own right, was likely by then fed up with such presumptuous doublespeak about Asian values. Thus, at risk of momentarily changing the mood of the table, she unequivocally said: "No, in this case, it is absolutely necessary to get directly to the point because otherwise it may be too late to get the direction right!" Her clear statement about doing what is right, even when inconvenient, has been embedded in memory.

After dealing extensively with the adventitious "grey men of China" whom Hong Kong knows well, I regret not having the opportunity to tell the Pattens, except by indirection in relating this brief but, to me, politically remarkable exchange, that they were correct in lifting the political consciousness of the people of Hong Kong, perhaps even against the advice of Whitehall's own mandarins. With the benefit of hindsight, allow me to state clearly: I and my politically ambiguous business colleagues throughout Hong Kong were wrong. The core values of the mass of the populace should always take precedence over the politically detached and self-interested objectives of businessmen trying to get along with an authoritarian regime.

After experiencing Beijing's Tiananmen crisis, Manila's people power revolutions of Edsa I and II, Bangkok's numerous riots, and Jakarta's palace revolt, the dangers of inaction while operating within a "band of ambiguity" become clear in matters of value that extend beyond making money. The convergence of politics and economics, for good or ill, will become an increasingly important part of Hong Kong's legacy. Profit-making organisations can, or more properly stated, should be at the forefront of change in creating a new culture of broadly representative governance. The truth, as well as the devil, always lies in the details.

It is my fervent hope that the business community will make the right choice in finally standing up for democracy, even if harnessing diversity is messy. Of course, I would be remiss if I did not also note that compromised powers-that-be within Britain, the other signatory to the Joint Declaration, appear to have also caught the same shameful "commerce-first disease" that has overcome certain luminaries at the Big Four. One always has to face the truth of words and ideas or suffer the consequences. It's time to get the direction right.

Thomas Y. Yasuda is a former executive director and group managing director of the publicly listed telecoms, banking and trading conglomerate, First Pacific Company, headquartered in Hong Kong