In this territory awash with money from China, a former hedge fund manager, Edward Chin (錢志健), hopes to ignite a political awakening among the bankers, stockbrokers and financial traders whose livelihoods have become increasingly enmeshed in the mainland’s cash and influence.
If Chin and his 70 or so current supporters have their way, growing numbers from the territory’s financial class will join a campaign that in coming months plans to stage civil disobedience protests in Central, the business district where many of them work in sleek office towers, demanding unfettered elections for Hong Kong’s leaders in 2017 and beyond.
In a letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) published in newspapers on Wednesday, the financial industry activists say Hong Kong’s economic health and social integrity have been jeopardized by threats to independent news media, an influx of suspect money and political cronyism that undermines fairness in banking and financial services, a mainstay of the economy.
“Hong Kong’s existing political system has become the stumbling block to the city’s long-term social, political and economic growth and is the root cause of social division and disharmony in Hong Kong,” says the letter, a copy of which Chin provided.
The answer, the letter says, lies in ensuring that Hong Kong’s elections are open, without Beijing’s wielding power to engineer the outcome by excluding candidates or skewing the voting procedures. China’s national legislature has said that election of the Hong Kong chief executive from 2017 “may be implemented by the method of universal suffrage,” but critics say the Hong Kong government’s proposals to deliver that broad promise could be fatally compromised by limits demanded by Beijing.
Hong Kong’s chief executive is currently chosen by an elite committee of about 1,200 people, many of them seen as beholden to the Chinese government.
Chin and his supporters, who call themselves a financial arm of the “Occupy Central” movement, embody a trend that could prove increasingly troublesome for Beijing’s efforts to manage Hong Kong, which maintains its own separate administration and laws.
Anxiety over mainland influence is reaching up the social ladder to include members of the professional establishment who outwardly appear to have much to gain from avoiding confrontation with the Chinese government and its supporters. While critics of Occupy Central warn that it could hurt economic confidence, its backers say Hong Kong’s long-term economic health requires political action to press for change.
“Most people think people who work in banking or finance only focus on work, or people say we are the beneficiary of this system,” said Lai Chong Au (區麗莊), a marketing manager at an investment firm, who has joined the group started by Chin.
“But that’s not true,” she said. “In the long run, if you want to maintain an international banking and financial center in Hong Kong, you need to have a good system, a good framework, in order to protect it.”
Michael DeGolyer, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University, said a forthcoming study of public opinion showed levels of public discontent with the Hong Kong government similar to those seen before mass protests in 2003, when the government tried to introduce Beijing-backed anti-subversion laws. Then and now, the professional classes were among those particularly dissatisfied, he said.
“People in Hong Kong have been characterized as politically apathetic, but that’s the wrong term,” he said. “They are extremely alert to things that might threaten them, their families and their fortunes.”
Long a British colony, Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. In recent years, the “one country, two systems” arrangement that was designed to preserve Hong Kong’s legal and administrative autonomy has come under pressure from Chinese political and economic influence.
Despite the echoes of Occupy Wall Street — the movement against capitalist excess that erupted in New York in 2011 — Hong Kong’s “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” is focused on winning political and electoral rights, not challenging the tenets of capitalism. (A separate movement in Hong Kong in 2011-2012 also used the name Occupy Central, and was inspired by Occupy Wall Street and anger at capitalism.)
However, Chin, who runs an investment fund, said that in Hong Kong, too, wealth and opportunity have risen beyond the grasp of many middle-class residents, even financial professionals. The territory’s boast of being the world’s freest economy is belied by realities, he said.
“In Hong Kong, honestly, it’s like 0.01 percent is what I call the ruling class,” he said.
China’s deepening presence has been accompanied by an influx of suspect cash — possibly from corruption — and cronyism that have compromised Hong Kong’s financial sector, Chin said.
The most lucrative jobs and deals increasingly tend to go to people who are relatives of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) elite, or those who have their patronage, he said.
“People who are from a red background, they definitely don’t compete on the same level playing field,” Chin said, referring to the families of CCP officials who have won jobs in banks and investment funds. “When they say ‘Occupy Central,’ I say it’s already occupied. These are guys with loads of money that seem unreal.”
Chin said that his group, mainly Hong Kong-born Chinese, had received support from some mainland Chinese people living in Hong Kong, who feared that the territory’s relatively clean business environment could be tainted by rough-and-tumble practices and corruption more common on the mainland.
“They have seen how it works on both sides,” he said. “They don’t want this city to die.”
He and other members of his group said they were not surprised by allegations, pursued by US investigators, that JPMorgan Chase used a jobs program to recruit family members of the CCP elite while the bank fought to win business on the mainland. Neither JPMorgan nor any of the other banks under scrutiny for similar practices has been accused of wrongdoing.
Last week, Chinese Communist Party investigators began an inquiry into Song Lin (宋林), the chairman of China Resources, a state-controlled conglomerate, after a journalist went public with allegations that Song had laundered money with the help of a mistress, a Chinese banker working in Hong Kong. Song has been removed from his job.
“Gradually the apple has become rotten,” said another of the financial sector activists backing Occupy Central, Bill Tsang (曾振超), who recently retired as a senior manager at the Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Ltd.
“The mainlanders, they get big deals, not because of their competence, but maybe for political relationships or guanxi,” he said, using the Mandarin word for connections. “Corruption culture has now already come to Hong Kong.”
He and others said China’s political and commercial sway also threatened to stifle Hong Kong newspapers and broadcasters that have produced critical coverage of the mainland and its policies in Hong Kong.
Growing worries about pressure on the local media came to a head in February, when Kevin Lau Chun-to (劉進圖), the former chief editor of Ming Pao, a newspaper with a tradition of independent journalism, was attacked with a cleaver.
Police said authorities in China had caught two men suspected of carrying out the attack. The police have not characterized their motive.
Hong Kong’s financial services sector is a mainstay of the economy. It accounts for 16 percent of GDP and in 2012 provided 228,000 jobs in a population of 7.2 million, according to the government.
A public opinion survey conducted in December last year indicated that a majority of professionals and managers supported the Occupy Central campaign, a higher proportion than among blue-collar and menial workers.
However, members of the financial group supporting Occupy Central said they did not expect most of Hong Kong’s financial sector workers to turn private support into public action.
They said that although friends in the sector offered private support, many were too wary of recriminations to join the cause, while others believed Hong Kong’s best course was to accommodate or quietly resist mainland pressures.
“I think this is a long-term battle,” Au said. “It might not succeed, but at least when I look back I will know I tried.”
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