The Rationale for Hong Kong's Anti-rich Sentiment

Ernest Chi - Assistant Chief Editor, Ming Pao Daily News

[Jan 2011 - The Journalist]  Back in my school days in Canada in the 1980s, I seldom missed a chance to pick up the magazine "North South Pole" in Chinatown. One can probably say the newsprint black-and-white magazine was the “Next Magazine” of its time because its financial and political contents. I was fascinated by many of its cover stories and can still recall stories such as "Sir YK Pao lands on his fleet" and "Chinese tycoons move on HK Land".

In the 80s, there was hardly any anti-rich sentiment. Hong Kong was a tiny city but with huge opportunities. An uneducated young man could find a temporary job in Kwun Tong in 30 seconds. One could make more money driving a taxi. People believed they could become another Li Ka-shing one day. Well, who would hate such prospects?

After almost 100 years of colonial rule, we were proud of our local tycoons who raised their heads and saw their wealth expanding through land acquisitions. Nowhere was anti-rich sentiment to be found; rather there was pro-rich admiration.

A former union leader told me it would be hard to motivate the hardcore in the labour movement because most of them admired Li Ka-shing.

From Admiration to Hatred

Fast forward to 2010, and this is what we have in our collective memory:

1) The two girl friends of Chinese Estates chairman Joseph Lau Luen-hung at Fook Lam Moon almost every day, having their sumptuous lunch; Hermes’ Birkin or Kelly handbags by their sides.

2) Henderson Land chairman Lee Shau-kei waxing eloquent over the sale of 39 Conduit Road to former disc jockey Tsun Sin-man and others as a “real” deal, risking HK$1 million to those who betted HK$10,000 against him. In the end, three quarters of the “sales” were cancelled, including the Tsun’s transaction and the cases are now into the hands of Commercial Crime Bureau.

3) An estate war for the two daughters of Nan Fung chairman Chen Din-hwa breaking out and Chen’s wife filing for a divorce, accusing him of indecent behaviour towards his younger generation.

4) The government opening a case against “Golden Bachelor” Peter Lee Ka-kit, son of billionaires Lee Shau-kee, for his three babies via surrogate.

5) The three brothers of Sun Hung Kai Properties – always a symbol of solidarity – engaging in a power struggle which saw the ousting of elder brother Walter who claimed having negotiation for a fair share of estate.

These are just a few examples. We haven’t even mentioned how Lai Sun Development chairman Peter Lam kin-ngor challenged the police radar system that showed him speeding, or the fung shui master who fought for the estate of his love “Little Sweetie” Nina Kung Yu-sum.

We are in no way jealous of the rich but we worry whether the rich in Hong Kong can do anything they want. In these circumstances the Chinese edition of Alice Poon’ book, “Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong” could not have come at a better time, marking the change in public sentiment from pro-rich to anti-rich.

Now the collective discontent has broken out. Goodbye, pro-rich! Hello, anti-rich! The feeling is everywhere.

Honestly, only history can explain this change in public sentiment. Our economy has not been growing as much as it did in the past, while upward mobility has become more challenging. These can explain it all, but the kind of tycoon conduct coupled with a lack of philanthropy have only made things worse.

We have not seen entrepreneurs like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates in Hong Kong, but we witnessed a lot of second and third generation rich being admitted to the central policy unit. They may occasionally be seen as art donors, but that does not cover their money-mindedness and ignorance inside.

Who would respect these people?

Now the pressure is on. The gap between the rich and the poor has widened, but the government is unable to save the situation - and that is why there is this anti-rich sentiment.

Translated by Ben Kwok