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Opinion

Hong Kong's billionaires should give up power to save the city

Government must act to reduce oligarchs' control in face of protests

Riot police blocks part of the promenade on Victoria Harbor Central on June 12: breaking up property monopolies is a good first step to narrow the rich-poor divide.   © LightRocket/Getty Images

If ever billionaires faced a no-win situation, this is it for Hong Kong tycoons.

For two months, the elite stayed eerily silent about the biggest protests in the city's history. Crossing political benefactors in China could be bad for their fantastically profitable monopolies.

There is also risk in appearing to oppose the democratic aspirations of young Hong Kongers. Becoming targets of popular ire in the long run may be worse than stomaching a short recession.

Now, Hong Kong's overlords are beginning to speak up, and it is no surprise they are siding with their political contacts in Beijing. Money talks.

Property magnate Peter Woo last week said protesters should not "purposely stir up trouble" and called for an end to demonstrations. Sun Hung Kai Properties, Kong Kong's biggest developer by market value, issued a statement condemning violent protests a day later. So did other property bigwigs, looking toward Xi Jinping rather than in the mirror.

Property magnate Peter Woo, pictured in June 2013, said protesters should not "purposely stir up trouble."   © Imaginechina/AP

They probably fear the fate of Cathay Pacific Airways. Earlier this month, Cathay came under intense pressure to stop aircrew from supporting protests and suspend those who were.

Now China Inc. has closed ranks. On August 13, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), China's biggest lender, slapped a "strong sell" rating on Cathay shares, citing "management's poor crisis management."

The shares fell to a 10-year low last week as executives struggled to balance the conflicting demands of protesters, its own staff and China. Then, on Friday, CEO Rupert Hogg fell on his sword, resigning "to take responsibility as a leader of the company in view of recent events."

Cathay's Hong Kong employees might have expected to be able to express their views in an unfettered manner -- "unfettered" has long been Hong Kong's raison d'etre. It routinely shows up in the Heritage Foundation's accolades when, year after year, the right-wing Washington think tank names Hong Kong the world's freest economy.

Of course, Hong Kong topping its Index of Economic Freedom is an exercise in compartmentalization. With its leader chosen by Beijing, a pegged currency, a government-backed Disney theme park and a rigidly controlled property market, Hong Kong's economy is actually as oligarchic as they come.

Yet that arrangement is backfiring. Economist Andy Xie, the former Morgan Stanley bigwig, has argued that the tycoons "are the problem" underlying the tensions tearing Hong Kong apart.

"The Hong Kong government is not really in charge [even though] most people think that they need to listen to Beijing, but perhaps more importantly, they are really influenced by the big property tycoons," the Shanghai-based Xie told CNBC on August 14.

Like all Hong Kong leaders, Chief Executive Carrie Lam will probably eventually be replaced by another pro-Beijing apparatchik. But the tycoons who profit from engineering sky-high property values will still be acting in ways that worsen inequality. "This is crazy," Xie said. The tycoons, he noted, "think that people will just take it lying down forever, but eventually it blows up."

Though Singapore has housing affordability problems, the government does not coddle a handful of billionaires. In Taiwan, the people can vote out any leader acting against their interests. By sharp contrast, Xie argued, Hong Kong is "in between -- just a bunch of businesspeople calling the shots."

Hong Kong rents have been racing ahead of wages for many years now. Since 2003, residential property prices have risen more than 300%, according to the Centa-City Leading Index. Real estate company CBRE ranks Hong Kong the world's priciest real estate market. It is no coincidence that Oxfam last year warned Hong Kong has a "particularly severe" rich-poor divide.

The irony is that Hong Kong could do with some of the unfettered competition it claims to champion. Breaking up property monopolies and democratizing bidding processes are good first steps. Legislators should devise clear and firm antitrust laws to reduce the concentration of assets. Comprehensive competition laws also would level the playing for smaller entrants.

Hong Kong could cap mainlanders' ability to own flats -- or at least increase stamp duties to reduce speculative buying. The government should raise land-reclamation ambitions to create affordable housing. This goes, too, for corporate offices: exorbitant rents price tech startups out of the city.

All it takes is a jolt of political will. None of this will be easy. But if Hong Kong's leaders do not address the causes of discontent, they will intensify.

Hong Kong could also, finally, take Li Ka-shing's advice -- not the expressions of love and peace he expressed in newspaper ads last week, but on taxes.

In 2014, the last time protesters made global headlines, the city's richest man began advocating Heritage Foundation heresy: higher taxes. In 2016, he told Bloomberg that Hong Kong should "tax companies an extra one or two percent, then a lot of the poor would benefit. The most important thing the government needs to think about are the options made available to young people."

Only Hong Kong's leaders are not thinking about them. It means that however today's giant protests end, by truce or force, the anger behind them will live to fight another day -- over and over again. If the tycoons and their Beijing benefactors do not think this is bad for business, what is?

William Pesek is an award-winning Tokyo-based journalist and author of "Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan's Lost Decades."

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