As a businessman and newspaper owner, no one can doubt Shih Wing-ching’s acumen. To this day, I still think his advice to Hong Kong people in 2014 – for which he coined the Cantonese phrase “pocket it first” – to accept the government’s political reform package was right on the money; and that it was a mistake of historic proportion for the opposition pan-democrats to have vetoed it. But his latest defence of local developers is either wrong, self-serving or both. He made known his stance after Beijing rounded on Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, for calling on the local government to treat young protesters leniently. Mainland state-owned news organs went into overdrive to denounce Li and the role he and other big developers played in creating, and profiting from, the housing crisis in the city. Shih dismissed the criticism. “You can’t blame developers for high property prices,” he said. “It’s the fault of government policy. Developers are businessmen [who] used objective conditions to profit within the law. If what they do is legal, no one can accuse them of wrongdoing.” Scapegoats or scoundrels? Hong Kong tycoons’ ties with Beijing No doubt many economists and businesspeople would agree. But I was reminded of what British historian Peter Hennessy has called the “good chap” theory of government. The theory also applies to business practices. It’s about respect for unwritten norms, not just the letter of the law. “It requires a sense of restraint all round to make it work,” he wrote. Our property tycoons exercised no such restraint – quite the opposite. Businessmen like Shih may want to maximise profits, so long as it’s legal. In real life, though, we all have social and moral obligations. During the transition period for Hong Kong both before and after 1997, Beijing made the big assumption that maintaining the confidence of Big Business was crucial to the city’s social stability and economic success. It was right about the latter but not the former. A big chunk of the local economy was tied to property and its related businesses. The property barons took Beijing’s message as a green light to make obscene profits with the full encouragement of the Hong Kong government, both in terms of land policy and personal connections with top officials. Beijing mistook the tycoons’ obsequious manners for obedience. All the while, it was unaware they were working at cross-purposes until it was too late. Now we are all paying the price.