Professor putting a price on protest
Silent Majority founder and economist Francis Lui is all about numbers when it comes to Occupy Central
Most mainstream economic theories share a common assumption on human nature - that we are rational actors who narrowly pursue our own self-interests. For Professor Francis Lui Ting-ming, an economist on the front line of opposition to next summer's planned Occupy Central pro-democracy campaign, it is this train of thought that guides his views on the movement as well as economics.
Lui, head of the economics department at the University of Science and Technology, is the mastermind behind Silent Majority for Hong Kong - a group seeking to counter the Occupy movement, which aims to blockade the business district next year if the government doesn't offer a satisfactory plan for universal suffrage in the 2017 chief executive election.
"I have zero interest in politics but [Occupy] goes against the ethos of economics - private ownership," Lui says. "Occupying Central would incur a huge cost for sure. A prudent estimate is HK$1.6 billion. I have formulated this from different perspectives, but there are many uncertainties pending the outcome."
Lui says that despite claiming to be the saviours of those seeking democracy in Hong Kong, the organisers of Occupy Central are in fact simply acting out of their narrow self-interests.
The academic says his figure for losses that would be incurred by the city from the movement comprised a long list of items including forgone rent, labour costs, and long-term impact on tourism, and was "based on the experiences of the political uprisings in Thailand and Egypt".
"But the actual amount of monetary loss is not important. I hate people who think they are saviours but are really just imposing their view on others."
Lui believes those "others" are the so-called silent majority that his movement seeks to represent.
"I named the movement as such because there is really a silent majority opposing Occupy Central. I have surveyed people from a lot of circles, including the academic community," Lui says.
To back up his claim, he says that there are 5.5 million ordinary residents in Hong Kong, of which 3.4 million are registered voters. In by-elections in 2010 billed by some pan-democrats as a de facto referendum on universal suffrage, about 1.8 million of these people cast a vote. That left 3.7 million people as a silent majority not supporting the path to democracy espoused by the lawmakers who resigned from their seats to trigger the polls.
Lui also says Occupy Central would be counterproductive to democratisation.
"The movement is built on the premise that it can threaten Beijing to achieve universal suffrage. But I don't think so, and many others share my views."
Despite founding Silent Majority, Lui says he is not one of the 40 members of the group, which was formed in August and has since splashed out on four newspaper adverts.
"Anyone who wants to join the group has to donate at least HK$5,000. I never donate to a political cause - regardless of how hard people lobby me for it."
But although not a member of the group, Lui remains a devoted force against Occupy Central.
"Hong Kong's economic development is being obstructed by the political struggle," he says.
Addressing economic arguments against Occupy Central such as those put forward by Lui, the core organiser of the civil disobedience movement, Benny Tai Yiu-ting, has said that the democracy the movement was pushing for could benefit everyone. That included the business sector, which may bear the cost of any disruption but would benefit in the longer term, he said.
But for Lui, "the ends do not justify the means … Democracy means everyone's view should be seen with equal weight. Why can somebody act on my behalf?"
Occupy organisers say they will conduct a public vote to obtain a mandate for the civil disobedience action, but Lui says: "In economics, scholars have established that any opinion [gathering] mechanism has inherent flaws."
He says the sight of vocal protests on the streets is not a credible sign of the will of the majority. "The voices heard in society are usually from the minority. Logically, exactly because you are on the inferior side, you want to shout louder to be heard."
Some have turned Lui's arguments that democracy campaigners are self-interested on their head and directed them back at Lui, saying the tag he has earned himself as a "pro-Beijing academic" can win him public titles, influence and other benefits. But Lui says, with flaring pride: "I don't lack any of these.
"If you are talking about public titles, I say advisory body positions are donkey work. They involve tedious meetings ... only silly people would covet these titles.
He also says he is not in need of recognition or money.
"I have fame too. If you Google my name there are thousands of entries … Anyone who attacks my support of Silent Majority by arguing that I have an agenda to gain public office must have run out of arguments."
Lui, who began his permanent professor tenure at HKUST 20 years ago and has since become known for his work on the economics of corruption, says he lives a frugal life.
"My savings can feed me for several hundred years. I save over 85 per cent of my salary."
Spending HK$20 on lunch at a university canteen, he says, "is already a luxury. I sometimes fill my stomach with bread or biscuits I store in the office".
Brought up in humble surroundings, Lui graduated from the University of Chicago before obtaining his doctorate degree from the University of Minnesota, also in the United States. In Chicago, he studied alongside Professor Chan Ka-keung, who is now secretary for financial services and the treasury. On his former schoolmate, Lui says: "Everyone thought he was crazy to join the government. Don't underestimate him; he is smarter than everyone imagines."
Lui says he works on average 80 to 90 hours per week, filling the time with a heavy teaching and administration schedule and contributing over 30,000 words for newspaper columns. He would not disclose his age, but Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, who turned 61 this year, was Lui's schoolmate at primary school and at Wah Yan College secondary school.
Talking about his friend Cheung's work on the property market, Lui picked up a pen and started drawing a demand-supply diagram illustrating "how politics obstructs economics".
"The stamp duty rules are not the real solution. They reduce both supply and demand and cause market stagnation," he says, referring to recent rises in the tax. "I do not want to criticise Cheung too much, he was my classmate … but those policies cannot solve the problem."
Lui is less reserved when talking about Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.
"Years ago he tried lining me up [for office], but we are not very compatible ideologically. He is a socialist but I am market-oriented … but regardless, I feel he has a complex personality which cannot be fully comprehended."
Wah Yan College, Hong Kong
University of Chicago
University of Minnesota
Head of the Department of Economics, University of Science and Technology
Member, Steering Committee on Population Policy
Member, Working Group on Long-term Fiscal Planning
Member, Academic and Accreditation Advisory Committee of the Securities and Futures Commission