China's capture of Hong Kong's elite failed to win the favor of the people


In early August, in the midst of clashes between protesters and police, Beijing abruptly summoned pro-Chinese tycoons and politicians from Hong Kong to a meeting in Shenzhen just across the border.

Once there, the responsible Chinese officials in Hong Kong asked the 500-member delegation to "stand up" in front of the protesters and organize counter-demonstrations, in order to show "the right thing". "positive energy" of the city.

In Hong Kong, as elsewhere in the world, the Chinese have long been trying to co-opt business and political elites and then lobby them to lobby for Beijing.

But as the rest of the Shenzhen meeting showed, the strategy was largely a failure. In the days that followed, demonstrations intensified and resulted in the occupation and closure of Hong Kong Airport.

Country after country, China's campaigns to capture the elites have not translated into support from society. Whatever the efforts of the tycoons and others during the return to Hong Kong, they had little impact, which is true not only for the recent protests, but for years.

Until now, Beijing seems unable to define a new strategy to conquer the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens in many countries, including Hong Kong.

The failure of Beijing is detrimental to Hong Kong's future. Without seduction in their arsenal, the natural defect of the Chinese system could be the force.

The Hong Kong magnates, as well as the political leaders of the territory, may have been the easiest target of all in this global strategy, their livelihoods and careers surviving and dying, according to Beijing.

Long before the transfer of the United Kingdom in 1997, Beijing regularly called the rich and powerful of Hong Kong to cross-border meetings. Some have even been placed in Beijing in political bodies aligned with the Communist Party.

In the run-up to the transfer, such meetings showed the power of Beijing and the submission of the tycoons. Dozens of billionaires would be summoned to Shenzhen and forced to line up outside the buildings, often in extreme heat, waiting to be admitted to meetings to get their political order .

However, according to recent years, the culture of the Hong Kong elite has had no impact on public opinion. The elite of the former British colony may be associated with Beijing, but the rest of the population has gone in the opposite direction.

Beijing has tried the same tactic of capture by the elite around the world, but it has almost always been accompanied by popular disillusionment.

In the United States, the business community has been very much sought after by the Chinese and has for years been an important voice of moderation for all the administrations that wanted to be firm with regard to Beijing.

But the culture of the American business community in Beijing, as in Hong Kong, has failed to convince anyone outside of its golden orbit to learn to love China.

In fact, in the United States, the opposite may have occurred. Ordinary Americans witnessed the collusion of big business between China and other Asian countries, displacing investments and weakening local economies, anger that Donald Trump exploited during his election campaign.

The same pattern can be observed, to varying degrees, in developed countries such as Germany, Japan and South Korea. Multinationals in these countries have been working hard to keep China on track, but their enthusiasm has not been passed on to citizens.

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

In the short term, the party-state in Beijing seems to have few tools to fight popular disillusionment and reconnect with the people of Hong Kong and Taiwan, not to mention Western democratic nations.

China has spent tens of millions of dollars in soft power tools to make itself known in recent years, including the creation of multilingual TV news channels under the CGTN brand, China Global Television Network.

In times of crisis, however, the whole surface of direct reporting goes through, with CGTN, and more traditional state media like Xinhua, resorting to rude propaganda and attacks against Beijing's alleged enemies.

With the back to the wall, Beijing's tactics have now come full circle. Not only do they target protesters in Hong Kong, but elites are also punished if their employees move away from the party line.

Rupert Hogg of Cathay Pacific, photographed in July 2018, resigned on August 16, claiming that he "must take responsibility" for how the airline handled the current crisis.

© Getty Images

Cathay Pacific CEO Rupert Hogg was forced by Beijing's resignation in mid-August after several of his employees publicly supported the protest movement in Hong Kong.

The leaders of any company, local or foreign, based in Hong Kong know that the same thing could happen to them as they went through Beijing. As a result, fewer are likely to be based in Singapore and elsewhere.

Unless you want to completely dig a precious financial center, China needs a new fast strategy.

Richard McGregor is a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute, a think tank, in Sydney. His latest book is "Xi Jinping: The Backlash", published by Penguin Australia.

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