Coronavirus: Hong Kong’s tycoons are rushing to join the fight against Covid-19. Where were they earlier?
- The city’s tycoons had earlier been involved in the coronavirus fight but in a sporadic, even lukewarm manner, according to sources
- Xi Jinping’s call for action cleared one key bottleneck – the Hong Kong government itself and its red tape, claimed an insider in the pro-Beijing camp
The excuse for their previous reluctance: the local government.
These were among the arguments mounted by analysts, several players in the private sector and pro-Beijing pundits in explaining why it took a call from the top to force them into action.
On Wednesday, pro-Beijing media in the city reported that the Chinese leader had called on the local government to mobilise “all forces and resources” and take all necessary measures to protect people’s lives and health, and ensure social stability.
The city’s tycoons had earlier been involved in the fight but in a sporadic, even lukewarm manner, said sources including pro-Beijing pundits and some private developers.
They attributed their sluggish involvement earlier to the local government’s failure to coordinate when the Omicron-fuelled fifth wave started to get worse, and they were not actively canvassed on what they could offer, the sources said.
They said the picture only became clearer when Xi delivered that uncharacteristically blunt message, including telling the local government it bore the main responsibility for containing the virus and that this had to be the overriding priority.
He had cleared one key bottleneck – the government itself and its red tape, claimed a source in the pro-Beijing camp.
Since then, resources have flooded in with different pro-Beijing groups and Chinese-funded companies donating hundreds of thousands of masks, sanitisers and rapid test kits, while major developers also responded to the call by offering around 20,000 hotel rooms as isolating facilities immediately on Wednesday.
Also among the first to give donations were the Hong Kong Jockey Club and Ant Group announcing they would each donate HK$10 million (US$1.3 million), while Tencent pledged HK$50 million towards the city’s Covid-19 work. Alibaba, owner of the South China Morning Post, also donated HK$10 million.
On top of that, in a rare webcast seminar on Friday chaired by Luo Huining, director of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong, leading property tycoons invited to the session all vowed their support for the anti-pandemic fight. They put forth at least 16 measures during the half-hour broadcast.
Tycoon Richard Li Tzar-kai, who heads the ViuTV local television channel and Now TV entertainment platform, revealed that the 12 members of popular boy band Mirror, who are under his media stable, would act as “anti-pandemic ambassadors”.
Peter Lee Ka-kit, co-chairman of Henderson Land Development, said his group would offer a 20-hectare site on Lam Kam Road for an “instant” hospital, while Adrian Cheng Chi-kong of New World Development said it was willing to offer the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre to serve as a community testing facility.
China Resources Group pledged to operate a new water transport route on Friday to boost the mainland’s food supplies to Hong Kong while Sun Hung Kai Properties would put promotion advertisements for free on the exterior wall of the 108-storey International Commerce Centre (ICC).
As each took turns, they presented a picture of solidarity between the government and the private sector, not often seen in public display, analysts noted.
On both occasions, it was only after Beijing piled pressure on the city’s property tycoons for their reticence in not opposing the protest chaos and violence that the developers sprang into action, joining in the condemnation.
But two sources from the private sector argued that the current crisis was different from the social unrest of the past.
The private sector was not reluctant or fearful of consequences in stepping forward to offer help to fight the pandemic, a source insisted, but members were confused as the government under Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had never asked them for help.
“It was also somehow difficult to communicate with some officials. We could expect there would be a lot of bureaucratic hurdles,” a private developer source said. “But now, with the emergency note delivered top-down from Beijing, we can offer more help.”
But the source admitted the property tycoons had also receded into the background since 2019 as their relationship with the government was no longer the same as before, as they wielded less influence on government policies.
As part of an electoral overhaul ordered by Beijing, the tycoons also had their influence diluted in the all-powerful Election Committee that chooses the city’s leader.
Another source said private companies had been trying to offer help by donating materials such as test kits and masks, much like in the previous waves of the pandemic.
But the source added: “However, without a concrete request from the government, we simply do not know what else we can offer.”
A pro-Beijing camp politician also agreed that the developers had been forming alliances and offering help to the community in the past four Covid-19 waves, but most of it was voluntary and without any official or informal cooperation with the government.
For example, last year Sino Group’s philanthropic arm – the Ng Teng Fong Charitable Foundation – and developer Chinese Estates Holdings gave out two flats in lucky draws to induce people to get vaccinated, while the private sector as a whole dished out more than HK$190 million in perks and prizes.
Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of semi-official think tank the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said he believed the private sector should not be blamed this time.
“When it comes to medical supply and help, there is really not much they can offer unless the government appeals to them on what it needs,” he said.
“The current government under Lam is overconfident and arrogant, thinking she can combat the wave easily to increase credibility.”
Lau said when the central government demanded that city authorities pour all resources into containing the pandemic, Lam should mobilise all 180,000 civil servants to make this happen, while Beijing had already helped the administration coordinate the pro-Beijing camp and patriotic supporters.
“But we are still not able to see how the government mobilises civil servants. Bureaus are still working on their own without proper coordination,” Lau said.
Song Sio-chong, a professor at Shenzhen University’s Research Centre of Hong Kong and Macau Basic Law, said the Hong Kong government should bear the blame for the poor coordination among the different sectors.
“It was hard for the pro-establishment camps to provide help if the government did not ask for help. They tried to warn authorities but the government failed to listen,” he said. “That’s why you can see they are all very prepared when the central government made the call.”