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Hong Kong’s tycoons silent on democracy protests

HONG KONG — As a struggle over Hong Kong’s political future unfolds, the men and women who arguably wield the most influence with Beijing, and financially have the most at stake, have maintained a studied silence on the outcome.

Hong Kong’s tycoons silent on democracy protests

Many protesters have complained about issues such as the high costs of housing and lack of social mobility, but economic issues also play into the government’s rejection of the protesters’ demand for open elections. Photo: REUTERS

HONG KONG — As a struggle over Hong Kong’s political future unfolds, the men and women who arguably wield the most influence with Beijing, and financially have the most at stake, have maintained a studied silence on the outcome.

Wary of upsetting China’s leaders, who could dismantle or damage their businesses, and concerned about offending the Hong Kong public, many of whom are already resentful, they have instead retreated behind the tinted windows of their limousines and the elaborate gates of their hillside estates.

Asia’s wealthiest man, Mr Li Ka-shing, a real estate and ports magnate, briefly broke the silence last week with a written statement, saying that while he understood the “passionate pursuits” of Hong Kong students, they should go home.

“I sincerely urge everyone not to let today’s passion become tomorrow’s regret,” he said.

Privately, however, some of the tycoons express a broad range of views on the street protests, and some have been more willing than others to accept the goal of broader public participation in elections, as opposed to the circumscribed version offered by China.

Many do not trust Hong Kong’s leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, regarding him as someone with authoritarian tendencies and a streak of economic populism who might someday raise their taxes to pay for greater social spending.

In September, President Xi Jinping met the city’s tycoons in Beijing to tell some of the restive industrialists to put aside their differences and support the Hong Kong government during what Beijing already foresaw as the potential for a long stretch of democracy protests, four Hong Kong officials and participants in Mr Xi’s meeting said.

The request silenced them, said Ms Regina Ip, a member of Mr Leung’s Executive Council who is also a lawmaker from the pro-Beijing New People’s Party. “No public criticism has surfaced, despite what they might think,” she said.

Many protesters have complained about the high cost of housing, the scarcity of high-paying jobs and the lack of social mobility. But economic issues also play into the government’s rejection of the protesters’ demand for open elections.

In an interview on Monday, Mr Leung said one reason fully open elections could not be allowed here was that they would result in “a numbers game” forcing the government to skew “politics and policies” toward poor people. A panel of 1,200 local leaders, many of them wealthy, currently selects Hong Kong’s chief executive, who is then appointed by Beijing.

Mr Leung’s comments followed those by a Chinese academic who advises the central government on Hong Kong issues, who said in August that democracy in Hong Kong had to be limited in order to protect the interests of its capitalists.

In the last big surge in pro-democracy street protests in Hong Kong in 2003 — when a previous administration sought to pass stringent internal security legislation — tycoons stepped in, despite heavy pressure from Beijing to support it, torpedoing the legislation at least in part because some feared that continued protests might result in property damage to downtown buildings.

But unlike in 2003, the business elite is exerting no pressure on the government this year, with real estate tycoons unconcerned because shopkeepers and other tenants are still paying their rent and financiers reluctant to draw attention to the protests for fear of damaging business confidence, said a person close to the Hong Kong government.

That has left some grumbling by the leaders of retailers and other commercial businesses.

Indeed, publicly aligning with one side or the other could put a crimp in a business. Two weeks ago, Mr Derrick Pang, the deputy chairman of Chun Wo Development Holdings, cancelled two company-sponsored scholarships at the University of Hong Kong.

Since the cancellation of the scholarships, Mr Pang said that he had been castigated on Internet sites and that six or seven news organisations had begun investigating whether Chun Wo had government contracts or any secret ties to Mr Leung.

“No one is willing to speak out” in the business community, he complained, adding, “I’m not against democracy, I’m just against the protests.” THE NEW YORK TIMES

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