| Kelvin Chan |
HONG KONG (AP) – As trouble brews in Hong Kong, who’s Beijing going to call? The billionaires.
With political tension in the southern Chinese financial hub at its highest in years, China’s leaders summoned dozens of the city’s tycoons earlier this week for talks.
The rare trip by the large contingent of busi-ness leaders to meet President Xi Jinping in Beijing highlighted the unlikely role that Hong Kong’s capitalists have played as longstanding supporters of China’s communist rulers.
“I see most of my old friends,” Xi said with a light chuckle as he sat down for the meeting with 70 of Hong Kong’s richest and most powerful people.
Seated next to him in the Great Hall of the People was billionaire businessman Li Ka-shing, Asia’s wealthiest person, who Xi greeted with a hearty double-handed handshake.
A man holds a banner saying ‘Justice is the most important and we support the class boycott’ in Tamar Park on September 23 as part of a week-long anti-Beijing strikes. More than 1,000 protested against China’s refusal to grant full democracy
Henry Tang, the heir to a Shanghai textile for-tune and former senior government official
Between them was Tung Chee-hwa, son of a shipping magnate who China anointed as Hong Kong’s first leader after taking back control of the former British colony in 1997.
Other Hong Kong billionaires with interests in property, media, banking and finance and casi-nos filled out the ranks.
Beijing has long courted the tycoons, who em-ploy hundreds of thousands of people, for the influence they have in the capitalist enclave of Hong Kong.
The meeting coincided with the start of a protest involving thousands of Hong Kong college students against Beijing’s refusal to grant democratic reforms that would let Hong Kong’s people have a genuine say in electing their own leader.
It also came ahead of a planned rally by pro-democracy activists to “occupy” the Asian finan-cial hub’s central business district as early as next week, which has raised the hackles of business leaders.
The central business district is Hong Kong’s “lifeline” as a global financial centre and occu-pying it would be “tantamount to destroying the Great Wall” – a potent national symbol – billionaire property developer Lee Shau-kee told Hong Kong reporters after meeting with Xi.
“Hong Kong will lose its advantage and its prosperity will wane. It’s unwise,” he said, calling for the organisers to stop.
Henry Tang, the heir to a Shanghai textile for-tune and former senior government official, said Xi supports the Hong Kong government’s work and said candidates for Hong Kong leader must be “patriots”.
Beijing used the meeting to reinforce its mes-sage that candidates for Hong Kong leader in promised elections must first be screened by a committee in tune with the priorities of China’s leadership. The stance has sent tensions soaring in the former British colony.
Surveys show the approval rating of the city’s Beijing-backed leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, is plummeting while distrust of Chi-na’s central government is at the highest level since the handover.
Discontent, especially among the young, is fu-elled by a widening wealth gap that many blame on the billionaires, a large number of whom made their fortunes in property development and also sit on a panel that selects Hong Kong’s leader.
Once revered for their business acumen, they’re now reviled for cosy ties with the govern-ment, which tightly controls the supply of land for development, making home ownership unaf-fordable for many.
Monday’s meeting was the first time that such a big delegation has travelled to the Chinese capi-tal since 2003. That year, a similar group made the journey after more than half a million took to the streets to protest a deeply unpopular plan to introduce anti-subversion legislation.