What’s being missed about HK’s new kingmakers

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Election committee reforms attack crony capitalism

  • More than 70% of election committee members are new faces
  • Revised rules slash places for tycoons and increase grassroots participation
  • Changes in Hong Kong reflect reforms taking place in mainland China
  • Criticism of “patriot” requirement diverts attention from key question: Should a community lean towards its own country? Or towards a hostile militaristic power on the other side of the world?

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM SAYS that the Hong Kong people have been totally disenfranchised from their own city and the wealthy elite from Beijing are now in control. But a closer look at what’s really happening tells a very different story. For a start, it’s certainly not the case that the same old “pro-China” voices are taking over the electoral process in Hong Kong. Seventy per cent of the 1,247 candidates for the city’s revised election committee are new faces: and they are clearly Hong Kong people, not northerly folk who have jetted in from over the border.

BUT THEY ARE PRO-GOVERNMENT!

But, but, but, they are all people who have agreed to pledge on oath of allegiance and follow the Basic Law! That makes them… loyalists!

Critics say this as if pledging loyalty to one’s constitution is a total outrage, rather than the default requirement for people participating in politics around the world.

Australians, for example, cannot take their seats in parliament before swearing allegiance to an elderly lady on the other side of the planet. And she’s not even Australian.

That’s not to say that the several hundred new faces in Hong Kong’s election committee are guaranteed to be a group of model citizens. Like any large group of people, there will be good ones and bad ones: that’s life.

IT’S NOT A ‘REAL’ ELECTION

But what about the lack of anti-China candidates in the running? Surely that stops it being any kind of real election at all, I hear you say.

Well, politics is all about realism. People who have participated in or cheered on a “burn together” campaign that saw more than 90 MTR stations attacked will not be in the running: that’s inevitable.

If you set fire to Grand Central Station and then stood for Mayor of New York, you’d be shown the door pretty smartly. Here’s an experiment for the staff of the exhaustingly critical BBC: use construction hammers to smash up every station on London’s Northern Line and then demand a seat in Westminster.

WE ALL HATE PATRIOTISM, RIGHT?

Part of the needless hostility in this regard is the way we all let ourselves fall prey to confirmation bias that supports our own prejudices.

So deeply rooted is the hostility to China in international discourse that when reporters see Americans extolling the virtues of being “patriotic” in connection to remembering the events of September 11, 2001, we think it perfectly natural; but if we see Hong Kong are asked to be patriotic to our country, we recoil as if struck.  That’s…. different.

But the reason why many foreign correspondents keep harping on about Hong Kong’s new parliament being – ewwww! – “patriotic” is that it hides the Big Question they would prefer that no one asked.

Is it better for a society’s representatives to lean towards its country’s leadership, or towards the leadership of an openly hostile, highly militaristic country on the other side of the world?

If you are Mike Pompeo fan-boy, like Jimmy Lai Chee-ying or Nathan Law Kwun-chung or Benedict Rogers, you may well choose to spend every waking moment cheerleading the people who have declared your country to be “the enemy”.

But the rest of Hong Kong people, whatever their politics, are going to take a less jaundiced view of mainland China. Numerous surveys have shown that Hong Kong people want a positive relationship with the mainland. It’s simple. We’re not stupid.

Hong Kong people have traditionally made up a peaceful, low-crime society, with a higher focus on work and a lower level of politicization than Western cities; Picture by Hisu Lee/ Unsplash

LESS COLLUSION, PLEASE

So, setting prejudices aside, what’s really going on with the new Hong Kong election committee? Let’s actually look at the data, the list of people, and the decisions made in fine-tuning the process.

It’s interesting to see that there is a very clear theme to the electoral reform process, and it’s one that most commentators have missed. The people who wrote it clearly intend to remove the adverse effects of crony capitalism.

Removing the adverse effects of crony capitalism? That’s a huge thing. Seriously.

For the entire British era – that’s 156 years – Hong Kong was run by its business community, and there is not the slightest disagreement on that from any side of the political spectrum. And that didn’t change after 1997.

Now, finally, 24 years after the transfer of sovereignty, we are started to see an evolving situation where the business community does business and the government governs. Which is how things should be.

SAME THING IN CHINA

In Hong Kong, just as we see in mainland China, there’s a clear drop in the number of tycoons in politics. 

Let’s look at the mainland first. In 2013, wealthy entrepreneurs made up more than 15.3%  of delegates in the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the National People’s Congress, according to the Hurun Report. The number has been falling, and this year it was just 5.8%.

In Hong Kong, property tycoons saw their share of seats in the election committee drop earlier this year. Last week they were told that only two members of any one family can participate.

In the past, we saw up to a dozen people associated with one particular business family or another on the election committee. That’s a huge change, and one that Hong Kong people have been asking for, for decades.

Hong Kong has been asking for action against collusion for decades; picture by Priscilla Serneo/ Unsplash

CAN THE WEST DO IT?

Can the west follow suit, by working to ensure that businesses run business and the government governs?

It can try. But progress in the west can be achingly slow. The European Union, for example, has been trying to use anti-trust laws to tackle tech tycoons since 2012, with little or no result over almost a decade. In other words, their attempts to wrest back power from the business community have been largely a failure.

In contrast, China’s leadership makes a decision and things get done, often with brutal speed and efficiency. “China’s new crackdown on the rich appears to be wildly popular within China. A similar crackdown on the super-rich, polls indicate, would be equally popular in the United States,” Sam Pizzigati of Inequality.org wrote recently.

WALKING THE TALK

Crony capitalism is bad, all sides agree. There’s a strong awareness in both east and west that it’s bad to allow tycoons, especially tech ones, to have too much power over society. But who is doing something about it?

“Over the first six months of 2021, the world’s ten richest [people] grew US$209 billion richer. China’s richest lost US$16 billion over the same time span,” Pizzigati points out. For all the criticism that is thrown at the Chinese government every day, some deserved, some not, there are many examples of it seeing a problem and then solving it.

“Businesses should do business, governments should govern”

WHAT A GOOD IDEA

And it’s interesting to note who is copying the methods of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. In July, U.S. President Joe Biden hit out at his country’s tycoons by calling for increased taxes on the rich. He also bypassed normal democratic channels to push out a presidential executive order to weaken the power of mega-firms by pushing anti-trust actions.

Only yesterday Biden tweeted a message (to which this writer responded) about his intention to focus on the rich.

As Fair.org has shown with numerous examples from the mainstream media, when Xi makes such moves, it’s “authoritarianism”, but when Biden copies it, it’s “executive action”.

But coming back to Hong Kong’s election committee, it’s worth looking at the details of who these new faces are.

WELCOME, FISHERMEN

Yes, there are doctors and lawyers, but there are also a great many grassroots organizations and individuals on the list. Some candidates wrote in their occupations, and you can see a railway worker, an insurance agent, a plant maintenance technician, a surveyor, a railway worker, and more than dozen fishermen. There’s even a farmer.

As I say above, there’s no guarantee that they will do better than the previous generations of people with political power in Hong Kong.  But the fact is, I seriously doubt that they could do worse. And yes, they may be people who lean towards our country’s leadership.

But surely that makes more sense than leaning towards the hostile leadership of a country on the other side of the world? I don’t care if you are politically yellow, blue or purple with pink stripes, we have to open our eyes and see the real world around us. And if the power of tycoons is being curbed, and more emphasis is being put on lessening inequality between the rich and the poor, things are already getting better.


Link: Details about Hong Kong government election committee

Note: A version of this piece also appears in today’s South China Morning Post.


Image at the top from: Chapman Chow/ Unsplash

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