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Hong Kong's pro-business lawmakers face rough ride in new term

In the final part of a three-part series looking ahead to the new legislative term, we examine Legco's now outnumbered pro-business lawmakers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 October, 2012, 3:27pm

Pro-business lawmakers return to work today in a pessimistic mood, foreseeing a dearth of opportunities to advance the causes held dear by their supporters, and which they feel are in the best interests of the city.

At best, the social agenda is likely to be dominated by populist policies - a result not just of a growing number of directly elected lawmakers who rely on grass-roots support, but also the policies of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

At worst, a lingering rivalry with erstwhile allies in the Beijing-loyalist camp - in the aftermath of a chief executive election where many business-friendly lawmakers backed Leung's rival, Henry Tang Ying-yen - could leave them wrestling for influence in the Legislative Council.

When it was created, Legco was dominated by the business community. The slow introduction of democracy did little to diminish the influence of industry, due to the presence of functional constituencies - voted for largely by corporate interests.

But the expansion of Legco from 60 to 70 seats, with all of the new lawmakers elected by the public, has left those dependent on the votes of the grass roots in the majority for the first time, and the government less reliant on business interests.

There are now just 16 lawmakers who are generally considered to put business first, the same as before the poll. Beijing-loyalists with union affiliations and radical pan-democrats have been the main beneficiaries of extra seats, while pan-democrats also had unexpected success in the traditional functional constituencies over last term, claiming six such seats.

The extra seats weren't all bad news for the business bloc, however. The Liberal Party, the oldest and most established pro-business party, added two new seats to the three it held before the election, with honorary chairman James Tien Pei-chun reclaiming the New Territories East geographical seat he lost in 2008.

"We will fulfil our role in representing the business sector," Tien said.

The Liberals have faced some tough years. Tien's decision to quit the Executive Council in 2003 saw the party fall out of favour with the central government's liaison office. Worse was to come. In 2008, four lawmakers representing functional constituencies quit the party to join an alternative pro-business group, Economic Synergy. Among them was heavyweight Lau Wong-fat, head of the powerful rural affairs body the Heung Yee Kuk. Economic Synergy lost one of its four seats at the election.

The split lingered on into last month's election, at which "Economic Synergy was mainly backed by business syndicates", Tien said. "But we remained supportive of small and medium-sized businesses."

It's a charge refuted by Economic Synergy convenor Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung, who says his group "raises ideas and communicates with the government in response to the needs of the small and medium-sized enterprises."

Lam and his party colleagues this week attempted to secure the business bloc by founding a new alliance of business-friendly lawmakers, which they say will help bridge the gap between the business and professional sectors and the public. It's a task the chairman of the seven-strong alliance - which has no formal English name yet and does not include the Liberals - says is vital, as Legco becomes more of a populist political theatre.

"Bills examination isn't a sexy task, but this is a job that needs to be done," said Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen. "But for some lawmakers, they show up only for sexy things, and walk away for the not-so-sexy ones. This is not fulfilment of their responsibilities to Hong Kong."

The alliance consists mostly of former backers of Tang in his failed bid for chief executive. But Lam - tipped to join the Executive Council soon - denied there was still rivalry with the current chief executive.

Leung didn't name names, but evidence of how politicking can get in the way of legislating came just before the end of the last Legco session.

Determined to derail a bill that would ban lawmakers who resign from standing in by-elections and delay a government restructuring proposal, radicals from People Power and the League of Social Democrats submitted 1,300 amendments to a bill and staged a mammoth filibuster, while pan-democrats stayed away from quorum counts, forcing the cancellation of Legco sessions.

And with the number of radicals on the rise, there will be a tough four years ahead for the business lobby, Tien says. "After all, our five votes are not decisive, generally speaking," he said. But he will look for common ground with the newcomers

"The so-called radical lawmakers are also [like the Liberals] supportive of pushing for the government to help the poor by using its strong financial reserves," he said.

But Tien says his group will stand firm on certain issues, like standardised working hours.

Other pro-business lawmakers are more concerned about the rise of the radicals.

Chan Kin-por, an independent who represents the insurance sector, believes many newcomers to Legco have little idea about industry.

"Apart from those who've really run a business, like [People Power lawmaker] Wong Yuk-man, some others - like those who have always been a social worker - have no understanding at all about business operations."

"In their world, there's nothing like what we know, like how to manage a company with several hundred staff," Chan said.

He pointed to the example of his attempt to reduce taxes for companies willing to set up a regional headquarters in the city, which he says was vetoed by Democrat James To Kun-sun, who won more votes than any other lawmaker in last month's poll in the citywide ballot for the five new "super seats".

And erstwhile allies on the Beijing-loyalist side may no longer stick with the pro-business groups. Labour sector lawmaker Kwok Wai-keung, from the Federation of Trade Unions, hinted there was more room to co-operate with pan-democratic parties that are pro-labour.

Asked about standard working hours, he said he expected "discussions, discussions".

"There must be talks," he said. "There should be the smell of gunpowder in the middle between workers and employers.

"Employees are a minority, they're the most victimised group. So we have to help them get back what they deserve."

But, he added: "I don't think there should be a stark confrontation. To be fair, we need to ask if the employees' standard of living is reasonable."

Brian Fong Chi-hang, vice-chairman of think tank SynergyNet, said business influence was not just about pull in Legco. "Their influence won't wane with fewer seats, as long as their relations with Beijing remain good."

And he believes business interests will fall into line behind the chief executive - as long as he leaves them alone.

"Leung has been handling the possibility of shaking up business interests very carefully," Fong said, citing a "superficial" vow to allow only Hongkongers to own some new flats.

Ma Ngok, a political scientist at Chinese University, said the business sector shouldn't complain about losing influence in Legco, especially with Beijing saying universal suffrage could be a reality by the 2020 elections.

"If they're worried about diminishing influence, they could run in direct elections," Ma said.

ON THE MONEY

'Wins' in the last Legco term:

  • Competition Bill: High thresholds for turnover and market share left 95 per cent of smaller enterprises unaffected
  • Companies Ordinance: Rules relaxed so more companies can produce simplified directors' reports
  • Futures and Securities Ordinance: Non-executive directors were treated differently to other directors as far as insider trading rules were concerned

 

Concerns for next four years:

  • Universal pensions: Will employers have to contribute?
  • Standard working hours: Could they be introduced?
  • The minimum wage: To be reviewed every two years. Legco must approve the figure

 

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