Mind the Gap

Lam Wing-kee’s accusations will shake Hong Kong’s business class out of their make-money-first complacency

The question that they will face is does the Basic Law really work to reconcile the inherent political contradictions of Hong Kong, or is it just ‘public relations wallpaper’

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 June, 2016, 5:04pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 January, 2017, 10:26am

He who bears witness to history owns it. The bookseller Lam Wing-kee made sure that he told his version of the truth before it was washed away by time, speculation and hearsay. Now we know what it was all about: something intimate and ugly.

At its most cynical, the Hong Kong business establishment treated Beijing as another colonialist- time to make new friends. At its most optimistic, business and economic integration would continue with the Basic Law as the guiding document that tries to reconcile the most difficult forms of government- a city with civic freedoms administered by an undemocratic government.

But, China’s rapid development has spawned an economic schism rather than absolute opportunity for Hong Kong because its tycoons and leading business people are intellectually ill-equipped for playing a role in the world’s second-largest economy.

Despite a slowdown in the Chinese economy, multinationals continue to invest in the country. Indeed, HSBC’s balance sheet pivot to commit more capital to the country represents an important shift in risk perception. Foreign companies are increasingly willing to subject themselves to Chinese law.

Hong Kong is a sovereign territory of China. But, the booksellers’ affair makes the city’s citizens feel that they are only part of China - a subtle estrangement. Initially, the gambit worked. Beijing bet that Hong Kong people, in particular the ruling government and business establishment, possessed no principles that they would stand and fight for. They were right. Everyone just wants to make money.

But, the disappearance and detention of the booksellers effectively sacrificed and eviscerated supporters from the business establishment who touted the rule of law. The only route out of this public relations disaster was for everyone to remain silent. Until one of the booksellers spoke up the entire incident would have surely faded away.

Hong Kong’s tycoons and business caste... believe that the only freedom that matters is their own freedom to make money

The affair has cast a sinister shadow upon our city. Its conundrums and dangers challenge the transformation of Hong Kong society and economy beyond its current status quo of vested interests who seek to anchor us to an era where local Chinese didn’t need to care about political affairs.

Hong Kong’s tycoons and business caste are an especially short-sighted and parochial group sentimentally stuck in their glory days of the 70s and 80s. They believe that the only freedom that matters is their own freedom to make money. You only need enough freedom to do business. Or like most Hong Kong people think, you only need to understand enough English to transact commerce, which partially accounts for why English competency is so poor.

The cryptic silence of the most important people in our community is bad for the business of Hong Kong, which necessarily needs to interact with the world at large. Both locals and foreigners need to know if the Basic Law really works to reconcile the inherent political contradictions of Hong Kong SAR or if it is just public relations wallpaper that has now lost its force in law. If it is a dead document, then business people can just directly with, and pragmatically conduct business in, China. Hong Kong’s role as a business and cultural bridge would have died with a whimper.

Displaying courage, acumen and moral fortitude, the bookseller Lam Wing-kee compels Hong Kong people toward a greater good beyond making money.