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Aron Harilela steps down as head of the city’s largest business chamber on May 15. Photo: Dickson Lee

Hong Kong chamber chief Aron Harilela calls for early dialogue with Beijing to settle ‘post-2047 uncertainty’

  • Outgoing Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce chairman says residents, foreign investors need to know what lies ahead
  • ‘Complicated issues’ ought to be thrashed out by officials, all political parties and sectors

Tycoon Aron Harilela, head of the city’s largest business chamber, has called for a dialogue between Hong Kong and Beijing on the city’s future beyond 2047 to remove uncertainty troubling residents and foreign investors.

“If we are asking multinational companies to set up their regional headquarters here, how can we ask them to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to come to Hong Kong if we can’t give them some certainty of the financial landscape, the business law and the common law?” he said.

“If you want to tell people, come and live in my city, come and invest here, you need to give them security.”

Under the ‘one country, two systems’ formula, Beijing allows Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy. Photo: Reuters

Hong Kong-born Harilela, 49, is chairman of the Harilela Group, which was founded by his late father, Hari, and is involved in hotels, real estate and trading. He steps down on May 15 after two years as chairman of the 4,000-member Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce.

In an interview with the Post, he praised the Hong Kong government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, but said it needed to heal divisions caused by months of social unrest which erupted last June.

Calling 2047 “a complicated issue”, he said: “We must address 2047 now. We must start the dialogue with Beijing now.”

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He suggested setting up a panel comprising mainland Chinese and Hong Kong officials, representatives of political parties and various sectors of Hong Kong society to discuss arrangements after 2047, which will mark 50 years after the former British colony returned to China in 1997.

In two years, the “one country, two systems” formula under which Beijing allows Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and certain freedoms not permitted on the mainland, will be at the halfway mark of the minimum 50-year period from the handover.

Hong Kong was rocked by months of protests sparked by a now-withdrawn extradition bill. Photo: Felix Wong

He said the panel should include representatives from all Hong Kong political parties, including pan-democrats. “You can’t have just one side of the arguments. You need all sides of the arguments,” he said.

Harilela said certainty and security were of utmost importance as investors and residents looked to the future. A married couple in their 20s, for example, needed certainty before committing their life savings to buying a flat, he said. A high school student needed to know if he or she would have a career in the city.

In my opinion, a lot of people were out on the street last year because they couldn’t see security for the future
Aron Harilela

“Some students now in high school want to study law in university, but they don’t know what type of law is going to exist after 2047,” he said.

“In my opinion, a lot of people were out on the street last year because they couldn’t see security for the future. Certainty and security are the best things you can give your population.”

He said he had raised the issue of 2047 with Hong Kong government officials. “They know the importance of the issue.”

Harilela referred to the 180-member Basic Law Consultative Committee, which was set up in 1985 and gathered views from Hongkongers on the city’s post-1997 mini-constitution. It included many businessmen, including his father.
A consultative committee was set up in the 1980s to gather the views of Hongkongers. Photo: SCMP

“They were looking at Hong Kong as a business city,” he said. “It’s now a much more complicated place than in the 1980s. People are now much more informed and knowledgeable.”

Political reform and whether common law should continue to be adopted after 2047 could be among the issues discussed by his proposed panel.

“Political reform has been on the cards for a long time. Unfortunately, Hong Kong did not come to a consensus on the type of reform, but I think as we have seen over the last 23 years, we had some difficulties with our political system here,” he said.

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Harilela, who has a doctorate in political philosophy, said there should be changes to the existing restrictions on the chief executive’s affiliations with a political party.

“If the chief executive has a little more support because he or she is affiliated to a political party, I think that would make the political process much more smooth,” he said.

Under the Chief Executive Election Ordinance, Hong Kong’s leader cannot be a member of a political party.

The Hong Kong government, which inherited the executive-led administrative structure from the British, faces huge difficulty in governing effectively and introducing policies because of the absence of reliable support from major political parties in the legislature.

Hong Kong should move towards a multiparty system with a single ruling party to improve governance, Harilela said.

“That system seems to work,” he said, citing the experience of Britain and the United States, where there are dominant parties and smaller ones.

Under Harilela’s leadership the chamber raised eyebrows when it urged the government last July to hold an independent inquiry into the facts surrounding the protests, which were triggered by a hugely unpopular extradition bill.

The chamber said the officials responsible for the poor manner in which the bill was handled should be held accountable.

The bill, which would have allowed the transfer of fugitives to mainland China and other jurisdictions with which Hong Kong has no exchange agreement, was eventually withdrawn, but that failed to end anti-government protests that became increasingly violent.

Carrie Lam held a town hall dialogue with residents last September. Photo: Reuters

The Covid-19 outbreak has kept protesters off the street, and Harilela stressed that Hong Kong should focus on helping businesses and workers that were hit hard even before the pandemic.

But he said he expected social unrest to flare up again soon, adding: “Violence is absolutely unhealthy and cannot solve anything.”

Stressing the need for dialogue, he said: “We need to heal the divisions within society.”

Although Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor held a town hall dialogue with residents last September, she has not had another open meeting since then.

Harilela said: “We have to mend the gap between the government and the people, and the only way you can do that is through dialogue.”

He added with a chuckle: “Every time I fight with my wife, I have to talk to her.”

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Business leader urges looking beyond 2047