Business·Analysis

Business adds new clout to latest round of Hong Kong protests: Don Pittis

Since China took control of Hong Kong, business leaders have shown firm support for the Beijing status quo. Now that's changed and the Chinese establishment may be listening.

Youths are the face of the demonstrations, but business is increasingly worried too

Young people remain the face of the anti-government protests in Hong Kong, but unlike in 2014, this time business leaders are adding voices of support. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

While youthful protesters have been the visible face of Hong Kong anti-government demonstrations, there is evidence that they have growing support from the Chinese territory's moneyed elite.

A law that would force Hong Kong courts to send people charged with crimes under Chinese law to mainland China to face penalties has the two groups worried for different reasons, and this time business is weighing in. And it appears at least some factions within the Chinese political establishment are listening, even as Beijing blames the forces of foreign capitalism for instigating the massive protests.

Even 30 years ago, when I lived and reported on business in the then-British colony, some within the business elite supported full democracy for Hong Kong. But then, as now, it was rare for business leaders to speak out publicly.

As the handover from Britain to China unfolded, it became pretty clear that popular democracy, where every adult gets a vote, was not the priority for business any more than it had been under British rule.

Why business cares

Far more important was the idea of continuity and stability that would allow banks and businesses to keep doing what the territory had become famous for: making money.

And that continuity and stability are now being threatened: The extradition law would also allow mainland Chinese courts to compel Hong Kong courts to freeze and confiscate assets related to crimes committed on the mainland.

That's why there's something different about the current demonstrations in Hong Kong that's unlike the previous round of protests five years ago known as the Umbrella Movement, said Canadian businessman Edward Chin from his office in Hong Kong last week.

"2014 was fighting for one person, one vote," said Chin in an interview with the web TV channel China Uncensored. "This time you also see the pro-Beijing business people come out on the streets because they are also afraid."

The student-led Umbrella Movement in 2014 was about one person one vote, but this time around the issue is something that has Hong Kong's moneyed elite worried. (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)

Chin, an economist educated at the University of Manitoba and the University of Toronto, is a fund manager who used to work for TD Bank and who returned to Hong Kong in 2000 to profit from China's miraculous economic boom. In that way Chin is not that exceptional. 

What's odd about Chin is that, in addition to making money, he has been a committed and public supporter of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. And that has not, over the years, made him friends inside the territory's pro-Beijing business elite.

But, as Chin observes, suddenly he is no longer alone.

As has been widely reported, there are signs that people who had previously decided Hong Kong was a safe place to do business are now beginning to reconsider, actually moving their money out to places like Singapore, Australia and Canada. And for some, it's not just money they are worried about.

It's different this time

"This is more about their lives, about their well-being, their security, both financial and personal," said Chin.

Of the 300,000 or so Canadians like Chin who sought safety abroad in 1997 but returned to Hong Kong when things turned out better than they had feared, many are now planning to leave Hong Kong once again, he said.

Under Hong Kong's semi-democratic electoral system inherited from the British — one unfamiliar to most Canadians —business has a disproportionate sway. Until now, a lot of that influence has been directed toward maintaining the status quo and keeping Beijing's authority secure.

It is not unreasonable to assume that most wealthy business leaders are very happy to avoid a true democracy in which citizens might vote to raise taxes or redistribute wealth.

But another remnant of British sovereignty is something wealthy business leaders are realizing they like very much: the rule of law.

What both democracy demonstrators and rich business people fear is that the extradition law would destroy the freedoms people and businesses in the territory have grown to expect. Those are the freedoms entrenched in the Joint Declaration agreed between Britain and China that led to the Basic Law.

Unfair as the common law system shared by Canada, Britain and Hong Kong may be in favouring the people who can afford to use it to their advantage, Chinese law is something very different. 

The law is what Xi says

I remember 30 years ago, when the Chinese court system was less developed than it is today, businesses would sign a contract they quickly discovered was meaningless. The law was whatever government officials said it was.

Since then, Chinese courts have improved and will likely improve some more. But still, businesses that want contracts in China to be respected typically include a provision that allows for any disputes to be resolved under Hong Kong law.

Chin says powerful national and regional bodies within China, and the businesses they control, still exert enormous power over the Chinese legal system.

"These are the normal pro-Beijing guys," said Chin. 

And there are still hardliners in China who think of Hong Kong as a rebellious child that needs to be reined in.

"A big problem for us in the past is that we emphasised 'two systems' too much," the Financial Times quotes one Chinese general as saying recently. "We didn't emphasise 'one country.'"

But the entrenched establishment in China is increasingly like entrenched elites almost everywhere else: They are rich, and rich people in China have very deep networks in Hong Kong.

Even if the Chinese leadership doesn't appreciate the advantages of freedom of the press and one person one vote that Hong Kong demonstrators insist are essential to keeping the territory's "core values" alive, it may be that business can convince them that rule of law remains a fundamental necessity for Hong Kong's, and China's, economic success.  

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

About the Author

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.

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