Commentary: Dictators and tycoons gang up to deny the people of China and Hong Kong meaningful political participation

As former Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Tung-chee Hwa, himself a tycoon, is about to lead a delegation of more than 40 Hong Kong tycoons to Beijing on Monday to engage in talks with Xi Jinping and other Communist Party officials, it’s important to recall that the most powerful political institutions in both Hong Kong and the mainland are stacked with the wealthiest people. They are not elected but appointed.

Arthur Li (member of the Hong Kong Executive Council, former Education Secretary and vice-chancellor of Chinese University) has been in the news recently for his criticism of Occupy Central and the student strike. He is on the Forbes list of the 40 richest people in Hong Kong, as are many of those accompanying Tung Chee-hwa to Beijing, who coincidentally also number about 40.

To understand just how political their visit is, recall that the last time Hong Kong tycoons were called to Beijing for an audience with the red emperor was 2003, during the political crisis caused by the Hong Kong government trying to foist draconian Article 23 security laws upon the Hong Kong people at Beijing’s behest. In other words, this doesn’t happen very often. It’s all about circling the wagons: We dictators and you tycoons are in this together, and we have to stick together to protect our mutual interests.

It’s certainly not just in Hong Kong that there is collusion between political and business elites coupled with exclusion of citizens from political power. The New York Times has reported on the wealth and connections of the family of former premier Wen Jiabao , and Bloomberg did equally excellent investigative reporting on the wealth of the family of Xi Jinping and the wealth of Chinese political elites. In retaliation, Beijing has blocked their websites, and in the case of The New York Times, denied its correspondents mainland visas. Recently, SCMP did a great expose on the connections between Macau’s Chief Executive and other elites. The pattern of dictators and tycoons teaming up to protect themselves against the people is well established everywhere you look in territory ruled by the Communist Party.

Louisa Lim’s excellent book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia, is worth a read for all kinds of reasons, but the one most relevant here is its description of the composition of the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp legislature:

According to the Economist, the wealthiest 50 delegates to China’s National People’s Congress, or NPC, control around $94 billion, about 60 times more money than their 50 richest American counterparts. The NPC currently resembles nothing less than a Chinese outpost of the Fortune Global Forum, replete with film stars, celebrity CEOs, and the ‘princeling’ politicians descended from the Communist revolutionaries. One year, it was even scornfully nicknamed ‘Beijing Fashion Week’, so ostentatious was the display of luxury labels sported by the delegates. Most pilloried was Li Xiaolin, the daughter of the Tiananmen-era Premier Li Peng who had been nicknamed ‘the butcher of Beijing’. Her outfit included a Chanel necklace and a salmon pink Emilio Pucci pantsuit reportedly retailing for almost $2,000.
One bold newspaper analyzed the professions of almost 3,000 NPC members whose five-year terms ended in 2012. By its account, just 16 were workers, 13 were farmers, and only 11 were official army delegates. Thus the party of the workers, peasants, and soldiers has become anything but that. At last count, one-sixth of the members of China’s legislative assembly, or National People’s Congress, were chief executives, chairmen, or leading businessmen. Indeed, snagging a seat in the Great Hall of the People boosts a company’s share price by about 3 percent. Thus China’s Communist Party has managed to co-opt those it once reviled as ‘capitalist running dogs’ by making the political process profitable. (p51)

As has been widely reported, Hong Kong is by some measures the most unequal developed society in the world. (See Toby Carroll’s “Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement is about inequality. The elite knows it.”) If Hong Kong tycoons were savvy, they might work to find some resolution of the chronic political crisis in Hong Kong that provided some modicum of fairness while allowing them to keep most of their privileges, but they’re so in bed with the dictator that they’ve tied themselves to the mast of a political system that is provoking ever-increasing tension. Something’s gotta give, sooner or later, but the tycoons are businesspeople and gamblers, and by their reckoning, the cards are still safely stacked against the people for some time to come.


The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Occupy Central with Love and Peace.