Tycoons shift allegiance as Britain's power wanes

Stephen Vines Hong Kong
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:09

The trappings of power still surround the outgoing colonial administration but they are mere trappings. Understandably many people are asking: who will wield real power in the new order?

They are not inquiring about the status of Tung Chee-hwa, the Chief Executive, who will head the first post-colonial government, nor are they curious about his senior officials who, with just one exception, will be inherited from the old order. What they really want to know is who will be most influential from behind the scenes.

In the new Hong Kong the really influential people will be the big league businessmen. It is hardly a coincidence that Mr Tung himself is drawn from the ranks of the colony's leading tycoons and feels comfortable with those from a similar background. The Chinese leadership also feels relaxed in the company of these tycoons who pride themselves on pragmatism and are impatient with the niceties of democratic politics.

In recent years the tycoons have lost some ground to a new breed of elected politicians and professionals, but the big business bosses remained influential and acquired proxies drawn from this group of politicians. China, however, wanted to see the businessmen in the front ranks of the committees it established to prepare for the handover of power and so they were drawn back into the limelight.

Although it may not have been appreciated at the time the most important of the Chinese advisory committees was the first, set up in March 1992, after the constitution for the new Hong Kong had been drafted and China was getting down to the nuts and bolts of resuming sovereignty over the territory. The main qualification for appointment seemed to be wealth. Eighteen advisers in this committee were multi-millionaires, including Mr Tung who was then little known outside shipping circles. He was joined by the far better known Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong's richest man, who remains one of the most influential people in the colony.

Mr Tung may also be classified as a representative of "old" money, unlike Mr Li, and other appointees such as the film tycoon Sir Run Run Shaw and the construction billionaire Gordon Wu. Old money, which in Hong Kong can mean money passing from the first to the second generation, was represented in even greater numbers.

The old money group included the banker David Li, the young and ambitious Vincent Lo, who made a fortune from property development by building on another made by his father, and Edgar Cheng, chairman of the stock exchange.

David Li was also among the group of most prominent turncoats who switched overnight from being cheerleaders for the colonial regime to supporters of the new order. He was joined by the ambitious Nellie Fong, now a member of Mr Tung's cabinet. Maria Tam, a barrister, is another prominent member of this group. She was co-opted into the colonial government as something of a rebel, but quickly became one of its most loyal mouthpieces, helping to form a rather unsuccessful pro-Peking political party.

Aside from Ms Tam, there were three other prominent ship-jumpers who had served on the Governor's Executive Council or cabinet. One is Sir Sze-yuen Chung, who was once the council's senior non-government member, and was recently appointed as the senior member of Mr Tung's cabinet. Lo Tak-shing moved rather more quickly across the tracks to play a highly mischievous role in using his British background to warn the Chinese of all the dastardly tricks which he saw the British playing. The third is Rita Fan, who now presides over China's rival legislature.

More predictably, China bestowed membership on long- standing business supporters such as Henry Fok, who had helped China in breaking embargoes during the Korean war. Mr Fok is widely viewed as China's closest business ally, but there are others such as Tsui Tsin-tong, who has close connections with China's arms industry, and Tsang Hin-chi, the head of the Goldlion group, with extensive retail interests in China.

Alongside the businessmen, Peking rewarded long-time supporters of the Chinese government, including trade unionists and professionals such as the trade unionist Cheng Yiu-tong, the teacher Cheng Kai-nam and the veteran Xu Ximin, a magazine publisher who is sufficiently ancient and confident of his position not to fear making the occasional gesture to China's opponents.

An important inclusion in the group was Leung Chun-ying (another Tung cabinet member), then just 37-years-old, but clearly marked for a key role in the new order. As a student Mr Leung had been associated with anti-colonial activities but this did not prevent him from studying in Britain nor from building his early career as a surveyor by working for the British-owned property consultants Jones Lang Wootton. He left to form his own successful property conglomerate. Mr Leung is widely regarded as next in line to be Chief Executive after Mr Tung retires.

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