Signing up for trouble

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Signing up for trouble


Pro-democracy activists march on a street to protest against the city’s system of choosing its chief executive in Hong Kong in 2012. [REUTERS/NEWS1]


William Pesek

Leung Chun-ying’s next signature could be a politically costly one, for both Hong Kong and for China.

Few in the city of 7.2 million imagined that Beijing’s handpicked chief executive would take their side as China clamps down on pro-democracy forces. Certainly not the estimated 500,000 Hong Kongers who joined a July 1 protest against encroachments on the former British colony’s hard-won freedoms. Still, Leung’s decision to sign a petition against the city’s version of “Occupy Wall Street” is as odd as it is gratuitous - and may further fan tensions in a place already close to tinderbox territory.

Ostensibly, Leung’s signature is aimed at averting mass sit-ins in the city’s financial district. Some business leaders worry “Occupy Central” protests could dampen commerce and growth in a city whose main business is doing business. But is it appropriate for the leader of Asia’s 12th-biggest economy to sign what is in effect a political petition? With a swipe of his pen, Leung is effectively signing away any hope the pro-democracy movement has of playing a role in public discourse.

By further dividing a society already on edge, Leung is breathing fresh life into Occupy Central, which until last month seemed to have lost much of its urgency. The desire to pick Leung’s replacement as CEO is only one of the driving forces behind the movement, others being stagnant living standards, skyrocketing housing costs and growing inequality. The group first sprung up in late 2011, when activists set up camp at the iconic HSBC headquarters building.

In the years since, the movement lost focus and notoriety. That was until last month, when Beijing dropped a political bomb on Hong Kong: a white paper laying out tighter controls over the city’s people and government. The ham-handed document labeled Hong Kongers reluctant to embrace China’s Communist leadership “confused or lopsided.” Beijing contends that only a Chinese “patriot” can serve as Hong Kong CEO.

That prompted a massive online democracy referendum signed by nearly 800,000 city residents and the July 1 march (and, more recently, a counter petition against pro-democracy forces). Since then, protest leaders have pledged even bigger demonstrations if Beijing doesn’t back off. And now as Leung does his patriotic bit, he’s tossing fresh fuel onto an already spreading fire.

Even more surprising, key elements of the private sector also are bowing to China - including the Big Four audit firms. Hong Kong’s transparent, first-world banking system and rule of law have made it China’s “green zone.” That reputation won’t last much longer if Beijing succeeds in muddying Hong Kong’s business-disclosure rules and chips away at regulators’ independence from Communist Party bigwigs looking to hide their ill-gotten millions. China is always a difficult balancing act for Western companies (just ask Microsoft, which says it’s being probed by regulators there). Still, it’s chilling to see the Hong Kong affiliates of Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers oppose an Occupy Central movement fighting, at least indirectly, for their continued independence.

The big worry now is that Leung will pressure Hong Kong’s 160,000 civil servants to sign, too. “Of course there would be pressure,” Democratic Party leader Emily Lau Wai-hing told the South China Morning Post. Leung, she said, “can sign it as he likes, but please don’t politicize the civil service.” While Leung denies any such intention, activists worry about a behind-the-scenes effort to force government workers to oppose Occupy Central in order to keep their jobs.

In his efforts to be a good company man for China Inc., Leung may only be fueling the kind of social unrest in Hong Kong that Beijing wants to avoid. If protests swell, it will be too late for China’s leaders to claim they never signed up for this.

*The author is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Tokyo.

By William Pesek

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