Who can Hong Kong people turn to?

South China Morning Post  |  Mar 14, 2005

By Sin-ming Shaw

Hong Kong's elite are short-changing the community. They can and should do more. Take Sir Gordon Wu Ying-sheung, educated at Princeton University in the US. He has famously declared that those who do not pay taxes should not get to vote, a view that finds currency among the privileged.

Without the non-taxpaying truck drivers to move cargo, brick layers to build and taxi drivers to take tourists around, Hong Kong would be dead.

Hong Kong loves rags to riches stories. "Superman" Li Ka-shing is an iconic inspiration to many. The city sorely needs a business party to promote fair and open markets, not through rhetoric, but with a platform to outlaw market-rigging so that future heroes can emerge.

Once upon a time, Teddy Roosevelt rose above his social biases and brought down the "robber barons", members of his own class, making America a more competitive economy. Later, another Roosevelt (Franklin D.) gave the common people a better deal, levelling the playing field further.

Liberal Party leader James Tien Pei-chun had the same promise. Born with money, he is beholden only to his parents. Yet Mr Tien votes against anti-competition laws and chants his mantra: "Hong Kong people are not ready for democracy." By so doing, he slaps the faces of a knowledgable people and insults those who voted for him. Roosevelt material he is not.

The founders of the Democratic Alliance for Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong once had classic communist convictions. They should have been the lightning rod against monopoly capitalism.

Instead, the DAB invariably votes for the status quo favourable to big business, following orders from its masters in Beijing who have become patrons of capitalism. Does the DAB have any moral compass left?

Local communists and their fellow travellers need to learn that they are a mere political convenience, useful when needed, expendable when not. Will they ever wake up?

The Democratic Party, once the people's hope, is a shadow of its former self. Its leaders should "investigate its shortcomings", to borrow President Hu Jintao's words.

The only hope may lie with those independents standing up for democracy. But they need to build an organisation to reach the masses.

Hong Kong's academic leaders have long ceased to provide a voice of thoughtful policy analysis on behalf of the public that pays them handsomely. These leaders covet favours from the ruling elite by showering on them honorary doctorates and trusteeships. With rare exceptions, the business elite return the favour by sending their children to a prestige college abroad, a Princeton or a Harvard, with generous donations to follow. It is a humiliating bargain.

Take the campus bookstores - they resemble corner shops with few books and not much stationery. Property is just too expensive for the colleges to build decent bookshops.

By contrast, the Harvard Co-op or the smaller Columbia bookstore (12,000 sq ft) in expensive New York is an oasis for the curious mind. How can the business elite constantly brag about Hong Kong being world class when it has no decent bookshops? Our eight university leaders should ask the tycoons who wear their honorifics on their sleeves to collectively donate eight first-rate bookstores to serve future leaders.

A good bookshop is a far better manifestation of culture than a nouveau-riche canopy for the West Kowloon cultural hub, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, while so many in Hong Kong are still poor.

If some tycoons now wish to reinvent themselves as arts patrons, they should first provide Hong Kong with fabulous bookshops. How ironic that Page One, the best in town, hails from Singapore - the place that Hong Kong's elite love to denigrate as brain dead.

Do our university leaders have the gumption to tell the tycoons that books, not bricks, are what the mind needs? Will Hong Kong's rich oblige?

Sin-ming Shaw is a visiting scholar at Columbia University. This is the last of a five-part weekly series on Hong Kong's economy and leadership

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