The View

HK’s political instability will inevitably be bad for business

Younger Hong Kong business leaders recognise the difference between artifice and identity, unlike the previous generation

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 August, 2016, 12:14pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 August, 2016, 10:58pm

The head of a global bank asked me recently if I thought Hong Kong was becoming an increasingly unstable society and unsure business environment, because of growing protests and public dissatisfaction.

International businesses are wondering about the city’s future as a gateway to China.

“Truth is treason in an empire of lies.”

That’s how young people seem to feel about how the government and pro-business establishment is trying to manipulate them. It is a visceral uneasiness, a nameless anxiety, a feeling not a thought.

It is the way this story is unfolding not the story itself.

Data doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to be truthful. Hong Kong is not Quebec or an EU member where both jurisdictions have constitutions with a secession process.

So Hong Kong’s quixotic independence or self-determination movement is really about an entirely different narrative – that the citizenry, not just the students feel, they are not fairly represented in government. And as a result, the government appears to have no incentive to address quality of life issues for average people.

Historically, Hong Kong has always found its balance to survive and overcome economic and political crisis. The society is remarkably civil and conservative in its discourse despite being oppressed by predatory capitalism and a property cartel.

A benign colonial government, western legal system and a dormant China worked to the territory’s advantage. Then, history moved on, and Hong Kong found itself stuck with a government, high society and business elite that desperately clings to status quo.

We lived without our own government and a leader for more than a century. Now we have the government and precious little leadership. Instead, we’ve got a coterie of people who have rigged the game to get rich yet have contributed almost nothing to society.

The new generation of young Hong Kong people have completely unique values and heroes removed from the older generation. The big difference with their mainland counterparts is that Hong Kong has access to an uncensored internet.

Whether or not you believe that makes them susceptible to brainwashing, the city can’t operate as an international financial centre under a state censored internet.

The kids do not want to succeed like Li Ka-shing. Their heroes are people who are trying to change the world: Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, not property developers and acquisitors like Li.

We lived without our own government and a leader for more than a century. Now we have the government and precious little leadership. Instead, we’ve got a coterie of people who have rigged the game to get rich yet have contributed almost nothing to society

The kids recognise the difference between artifice and identity.

Living in the shadow of the unfinished business of “Occupy”, its supporters have revived and reconstituted themselves in spirit and strength. They have grown weary of being eternally on the defensive.

Exhorted by their imagination and sense that Hong Kong is their home, they seek independence from city leaders and Beijing, whom they believe fail to represent them or share their values. They are actually killing the past with unworkable ideas simply to get on with the future.

It is a sad commentary on the state of political life in Hong Kong that political gatherings take on the look of reality show contestants vying for attention rather than a competition for ideas.

There has been a great deal of insults, of name calling at rallies and press conferences. But what is disturbingly absent is any mention of how we got into this brewing crisis and how we can get out.

Hong Kong’s only remaining valuable function for China today is to act as an international financial centre for raising, managing and moving money.

Hong Kong is no longer needed for its wealth or business knowledge. China raised a billion people out of poverty with a one-party state. So it has its own reasons to be skeptical of multi-party politics.

Rule of law and social stability are important insofar as they allow foreign banks and bankers to feel safe and comfortable.

China’s legal and financial systems are not yet ready to accommodate international banks although the Shanghai free trade zone is a significant attempt in that direction. Any other Hong Kong issue is a distraction from Beijing’s efforts to run a big, complicated country.

Resolving Hong Kong’s fundamental political problem – the irreconcilable mix of civic freedom and a lack of democracy – doesn’t appear to be a high priority.

That’s why the only response you hear to that historically unsustainable paradox is: follow the Basic Law. Expect Hong Kong’s political stability to careen and rattle like a minibus descending from the Peak. This will inevitably be bad for business.

Peter Guy is a financial writer and former international banker