Li Ka-shing

Hong Kong can be both democratic and economically competitive

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 September, 2013, 3:54pm

Having stayed quiet for a while, Asia's richest man stole the limelight last week by warning Hong Kong about Shanghai's new free-trade zone. Li Ka-shing said Hong Kong people may be underestimating the potential challenge posed by the new trade zone, which could well surpass our city unless we step up our game and enhance our competitiveness.

This seems to be the new united-front message, reinforced a day later by Yu Zhengsheng , the chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee. The head of the nation's top consultative body told a group of prominent local representatives that the city must stayed united to increase our competitiveness. There appears to be a consensus in the local business community and in the nation's corridors of power that Hong Kong desperately needs greater economic competitiveness and less political combativeness.

In this context, Li, the supremo of Hutchison Whampoa and Cheung Kong (Holdings), is preaching to the choir. He believes Shanghai's role in economic reform by loosening controls on capital flows and expanding foreign investment will elevate the competitiveness of the mainland economy. Coupled with efforts to make the yuan fully convertible, Hong Kong may be left behind.

At the same time, Li spoke out against Occupy Central, the political protest movement launched by University of Hong Kong legal scholar Benny Tai Yiu-ting. He warns such protests will undermine the city's international image, with incalculable risks. This is an assessment shared by many local business leaders and government officials, including Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who has also denounced the Occupy plan.

But this way of looking at social development in Hong Kong is creating a false dichotomy. Enhancing economic competitiveness and advocating democratic reform are not two incompatible goals. Indeed, many have argued that the one needs the other. Nevertheless, Li's and Yu's warnings are timely. Some of the more physically aggressive tactics used by radical activists are to be deplored. Throwing objects at the chief executive and other senior officials, and fighting with police officers in street protests are not acceptable.

But the twin achievements of universal suffrage and economic competitiveness will likely make our city even more successful in future.