Wed, Dec 04, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Hong Kong tycoon
goes from friend of
China to punching bag

As the Hong Kong government cracks down on pro-democracy protesters, another tightening of the leash is happening — China’s efforts to throttle the power of the territory’s tycoons

By Tom Lasseter, Farah Master, Clare Jim and Keith Zhai  /  Reuters, HONG KONG

Illustration: Mountain People

In January 1993, an ambitious Chinese Communist Party (CCP) boss, a 39-year-old official with chubby cheeks and a mop of black hair, visited Hong Kong.

He was seeking out the British colony’s rich among the shimmering skyscrapers, hoping to secure investment in Fuzhou, the second-tier city he ran in China. His name was Xi Jinping (習近平).

That August, Xi received a guest back home. Hong Kong’s most famous tycoon, Li Ka-shing (李嘉誠), known locally as “superman” for his business acumen.

A photograph from the event shows Xi grinning as he walked beside Li, who held a bouquet of flowers in his hand. In the background, a long banner hung with the message to “warmly welcome” Li.

During those days, in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, Beijing was desperate to fire up a languishing economy. National leaders and provincial potentates were courting Li for his cash and the star power his name brought to development projects on the mainland.

That time has passed.

Xi is now president of a rich and rising power that controls Hong Kong. Instead of feting the 91-year-old businessman, Beijing has harangued him for failing to deliver in the rebellious territory.

When the CCP was looking for a chorus of influential voices to counter the pro-democracy protests that began this summer, Li offered only evenhanded pleas for restraint. In an online video of comments he made at a monastery, Li asked that the leadership show “humanity” when dealing with young protesters.

The response was brutal.

The Chinese Central Legal Affairs Commission publicly accused Li of “harboring criminality” and “watching Hong Kong slip into the abyss.” A pro-Beijing trade union leader in Hong Kong mocked Li on Facebook as the “king of cockroaches,” with an image that pasted Li’s head atop a picture of a fat insect.

“In the world of social media, some people are hard at work in sowing toxic doubts and disinformation to undermine trust,” Li said in a written response to questions. “It is hard not to be drawn into controversies these times.”

As the Beijing-backed government of Hong Kong cracks down on the demonstrators in the streets, there is another tightening of the leash happening, mostly behind the scenes — China’s efforts to throttle the power of Hong Kong’s tycoons.

Li and other tycoons have long held dominion over Hong Kong, tracing its post-World War II economic rise through manufacturing, real estate and finance, but the ascent of Xi has fundamentally altered the “status quo.”

Xi is a president who “thinks that he is like the emperor,” Chinese University of Hong Kong history professor Willy Lam Wo-lap (林和立) said. “So he thinks that Hong Kong businesspeople should definitely profess undying loyalty to the emperor, to Xi Jinping.”

The vilification of the territory’s pre-eminent capitalist was a rare public display of the new power dynamic, businesspeople and analysts say. It sent a clear message that Li and his fellow Hong Kong tycoons must toe the line and unequivocally condemn the protests, which present the most serious challenge to CCP rule since Tiananmen.

The now-scrapped legislation that sparked the unrest would have allowed extraditions from Hong Kong to the mainland. It also provided an avenue for the seizure of assets, the Hong Kong Bar Association says.

That could have exposed the territory’s tycoons to the same fate as wealthy mainlanders who have been stripped of their assets in Xi’s anti-corruption drive.

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