Commentary | 30 August 2019

China's capture of Hong Kong's elite has failed to win popular favor

Western business and political leaders now reject Beijing's enticements.

Originally published in Nikkei Asian Review.

Western business and political leaders now reject Beijing's enticements.

Originally published in Nikkei Asian Review.

In early August, amid clashes between protesters and police, Beijing abruptly summoned Hong Kong's tycoons and pro-China politicians to a meeting in Shenzhen, just across the border.

Once there, the Chinese officials responsible for Hong Kong demanded the 500-strong delegation "stand up" to protesters and organize counterdemonstrations, to show the city's "positive energy."

In Hong Kong, as elsewhere in the world, the Chinese have long attempted to co-opt business and political elites and then rouse them to lobby on Beijing's behalf.

But as the aftermath of the Shenzhen meeting showed, the strategy has largely been a failure. In the days that followed, the protests intensified, culminating in the occupation and shutdown of Hong Kong airport.

In country after country, China's campaigns to capture the elites have not translated into support in broader society. Whatever efforts the tycoons and others might have made on returning to Hong Kong, they had little impact, something that holds true not just for the recent protests, but for years.

Beijing so far seems unable to settle on a fresh strategy to win over the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens in many countries, including in Hong Kong.

Beijing's failure is ominous for the future of Hong Kong. Without seduction in their arsenal, the Chinese system's natural default may be force.

The Hong Kong tycoons, along with the territory's political leaders, might have been the easiest targets of all in this global strategy, as their livelihoods and careers, by and large, live and die on Beijing's say-so.

Starting well before to the 1997 handover from the U.K., Beijing has regularly called Hong Kong's rich and powerful to meetings across the border. Some have even been given places on Communist Party-aligned political bodies in Beijing.

In the lead-up to the handover, such meetings displayed Beijing's power and the tycoons' submission. Scores of billionaires would be summoned to Shenzhen and forced to line up outside buildings, often in extreme heat, waiting to be admitted to meetings to get their political marching orders.

If the last few years are any indication, however, the cultivation of the Hong Kong elite has had zero impact on public opinion. The former British colony's elite may have thrown in their lot with Beijing, but the rest of the population has gone in the opposite direction.

Beijing has tried the same tactics of elite capture around the world, but it has nearly always run in tandem with popular disillusionment.

In the U.S., the big business community was courted to great effect by the Chinese and for years was an important voice of moderation for any administration which wanted to get tough on Beijing.

But Beijing's cultivation of the U.S. business community, just as has happened in Hong Kong, failed to persuade anyone outside of their gilded orbits to learn to love China.

In fact, in the U.S., the opposite may have occurred. Ordinary Americans saw big business colluding with China, and other Asian countries before it, in shifting investment and hollowing out local economies, an anger that Donald Trump exploited in his election campaign.

The same pattern can be seen, to differing degrees, in developed countries like Germany, Japan and South Korea. The countries' multinationals have worked hard to keep China onside but their enthusiasm has not trickled down to the citizenry.

Beijing's approach, it could be argued, has worked better in Southeast Asia and in the many developing countries neglected by the West but embraced by China. Xi's  Belt and Road Initiative stands out in this respect, with economic diplomacy delivering political benefits.

In the short-term, the party-state in Beijing seems to have few tools to combat popular disillusionment and re-engage with people in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan, let alone western democratic nations.

China has spent tens of millions of dollars on instruments of so-called soft power to get its view across in recent years, most notably in establishing multilingual television news channels under the brand of CGTN, China Global Television Network.

In times of crisis, however, any facade of straight news reporting goes out the window, with CGTN, and more traditional state media outlets like Xinhua, resorting to crude propaganda and attacks on Beijing's perceived enemies.

With their backs to the wall, Beijing's tactics have now come full circle. Not only are they targeting the protesters in Hong Kong, but the elites are being punished too if their employees stray from the party line.

The chief executive of Cathay Pacific, Rupert Hogg, was forced by Beijing to resign in mid-August after a number of his employees publicly supported the Hong Kong protest movement.

The executives of any company, local or foreign, based in Hong Kong know the same could happen to them should they cross Beijing. As a result, fewer are likely to base themselves, instead going to Singapore and elsewhere.

Unless it wants to completely hollow out a valuable financial center, China needs a new strategy fast.