The two events a month ago could scarcely have been more different: As this city’s wealthiest tycoons, impeccably tailored, gathered in an opulent hall in Beijing to meet with President Xi Jinping of China, thousands of scruffy university and high school students hit the streets of Hong Kong, boycotting classes to protest Chinese-imposed limits on voting rights here. The student protest led to turbulent demonstrations and the occupation of downtown avenues, the biggest challenge to Beijing’s authority in Hong Kong since the territory reverted to Chinese rule in 1997. The tycoons, however, have barely been heard from. As a struggle over Hong Kong’s political future unfolds, the men and women who arguably wield the most influence with Beijing, and financially have the most at stake, have maintained a studied silence on the outcome. Wary of upsetting China’s leaders, who could dismantle or damage their businesses, and concerned about offending the Hong Kong public, many of whom are already resentful, they have instead retreated behind the tinted windows of their limousines and the elaborate gates of their hillside estates.
Asia’s wealthiest man, Li Ka-shing, a real estate and ports magnate, briefly broke the silence last week with a written statement, saying that while he understood the “passionate pursuits” of Hong Kong students, they should go home. “I sincerely urge everyone not to let today’s passion become tomorrow’s regret,” he said. “I earnestly urge everyone to return home immediately to your families.”
Privately, the tycoons express a broad range of views on the street protests, and some have been more willing than others to accept the goal of broader public participation in elections, as opposed to the circumscribed version offered by China. Many do not trust Hong Kong’s leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, regarding him as someone with authoritarian tendencies and a streak of economic populism who might someday raise their taxes to pay for greater social spending. But public reticence is all that Beijing is asking of the business elite for now.