Li Ka-shing's uncanny ability to leap over competitors and swell profits won him the nickname Superman in Hong Kong. These days, he's more the Invisible Man.
As student protesters wage the biggest assault on Beijing's authority since the 1997 handover, Asia's richest man and his fellow Hong Kong tycoons are largely keeping silent. Thus far Li's only statement on the demonstrations has been his Oct. 15 warning that protesters shouldn't "let today's passion become tomorrow's regrets."
The reason behind the reticence is obvious enough: Toeing Beijing's line is the cost of maintaining lucrative business monopolies. Just in case Li or anyone else had forgotten that, the state-run Xinhua agency recently ran a piece (quickly taken down) complaining that the tycoons had not condemned the protests strongly enough. Late on Wednesday, the advisory body to China's rubber-stamp parliament expelled James Tien, leader of a business-friendly, pro-Beijing party in Hong Kong, for calling upon Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to resign.
Mainland pressure is nothing new. Earlier this year, encouraged by Beijing, the Big Four audit firms ran a newspaper ad warning that proposed protests risked "shaking Hong Kong from its position as an international financial and commercial center." Yet if obedience seems mandatory to Hong Kong's privileged business class, it's also short-sighted.
The World Bank this week said the protests hadn't significantly damaged Hong Kong's business climate. That's true. Any economic damage from shuttered businesses and lost tourism is likely to be limited and temporary. The real threat is the chilling effect that China's response is having on the speech and press freedoms that have long kept the city in the top tier of financial centers.
Having seen the treatment meted out even to a loyalist like James Tien, will any other legislators dare to express their opinions about relations with the mainland? A year from now, will Hong Kong economists have the courage to question the veracity of China's gross domestic product data? Might bank analysts pull punches in reports on state-owned enterprises for fear of reprisals and business losses? Will academics studying health risks associated with mainland pollution feel safe telling the truth?
The metrics used by organizations such as the World Bank to judge Hong Kong's economic vibrancy -- construction permits, credit access, enforcement of contracts -- risk becoming easier for friends of the Communist Party than for its critics. At the very least, it's time for the Heritage Foundation to downgrade Hong Kong's standing as the globe's freest economy. Low taxes, the free flow of capital and the rule of law mean less and less if the kind of opacity that cloaks business on the mainland begins to settle across Hong Kong, too.
Protesters are dwindling in number and appear to be losing steam. Behind-the-scenes, though, Li and other top Hong Kong businessmen should be making clear to Beijing that the students' fundamental message remains a valid one: It would be better for China to emulate Hong Kong's success and freedoms than to smother them. Instead of running anti-protest ads, those Big Four audit firms should be decrying China's efforts to reduce the disclosure of personal data on company directors, obscuring who owns what.
The students are not just fighting for the right to pick their own leaders, they're defending a way of life that made the tycoons fantastically wealthy. Hong Kong's supermen should have the guts to do the same.
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