Loyalty to the motherland is proved by deeds, not words

Stephen Vines has doubts about Hong Kong officials' faith in China's stability

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 May, 2015, 11:42am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 May, 2015, 4:25pm

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received as a cub reporter was: follow the money.

Don't worry about what comes out of their mouths, I was told, just focus on where they're putting their money.

The "they" were, of course, the people we were most likely to be reporting on, including political and business leaders. And this advice has proved its worth over a great many years.

Here in Hong Kong, the money trail is often obscured but if you want to know what the rich and powerful really think about the future, look closely at where they send their sons and daughters for education and, indeed, why they are avid in seeking foreign passports, a.k.a. escape documents for their offspring.

This provides a useful reality check against which to judge the loud affirmations of loyalty to the Chinese state that come out of the mouths of people who are so loyal and so committed to Hong Kong that they look overseas for a safety net.

Every chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has sent their children overseas for higher education, in at least one case, the offspring have also been furnished with overseas passports. Can you imagine the furore this sort of thing would incite in a society that elects its head of government?

One headline you will not be seeing any time soon is, "US president plans to send daughters overseas for schooling".

Just the idea that the person leading the government did not think that local universities were up to the task of educating their own children would create a huge storm.

However, in Hong Kong, which has quite decent universities, they are not considered good enough for the scions of the powerful people, who also want to ensure that their children have the kind of familiarity with overseas countries that can lead to the acquisition of citizenship.

Then there's the question of money. To the best of my knowledge, everyone who is seriously rich and powerful in Hong Kong has assets safely stored away abroad. They favour jurisdictions with democratic governments and strong rule of law. And, as the spate of corruption trials across the border has revealed, senior Chinese officials are also thinking and acting along the same lines.

The extent to which overseas safety nets are sought by the prominent flag-wavers is so widespread that it tends to be shrugged off but, in an international context, it is truly unusual and remarkable.

We kind of expect the average tin-pot dictator to have ferreted away large sums of money overseas because they live with the daily reality of instability. However, we have been solemnly assured that the People's Republic of China is far from being unstable and we have the word of the mainland's most avid cheerleaders in Hong Kong that its stability is unshakeable. So, it is wrongheaded to make comparisons with smaller states where the rulers literally dispatch suitcases full of cash overseas.

And yet these crude methods of cash extraction have been seen in the traffic between the mainland and Macau's casinos. Here in Hong Kong, the reality of transferring assets occurs at a much more sophisticated level.

One SAR chief executive bought property in London, another has property in the United States. Meanwhile, the people with real money are engaged in much bigger overseas investments that are designed to ensure that, whatever happens in Hong Kong, their money is safely tucked away abroad.

So, next time you are subjected to the protestations of a well-heeled "loyalist", a reality check may be in order.

  • This is my last column in this space: thank you, readers, for your patience.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur