Home >Opinion >Commoners under a hammer

On 10 June, few international chambers of commerce in Hong Kong—Italian, Canadian and Indian—regretted that the plans of the “Occupy Central" movement had “given insufficient thought to the potential consequences their demonstration could have for the city’s economy, its businesses, its community and people, and even those visiting Hong Kong from overseas".

Then, two weeks later (27 June to be precise), the local branches of “Big Four" audit and accounting firms in Hong Kong took out an advertisement to express the view that the actions of “Occupy Central" will damage the financial services industry. Their employees dissociated themselves from the statement. Several years ago, EY, having put out a report on the bad debt situation in China, withdrew it after protests from the Chinese government.

Analysts working for big banks issued warnings that the Hong Kong stock market could drop sharply if the “Occupy Central" movement gathered momentum and disrupted businesses. That these groups were speaking up on behalf of the Chinese government rather than warning us of risks is a reasonable suspicion.

The “Occupy Central" movement in Hong Kong is a consequence of doubts that have arisen over China’s intent to implement the “one country-two systems" policy it promised Hong Kong residents when the British returned the island to China in 1997.

A White Paper released by the government in China had raised some doubts in the minds of Hong Kong residents since the White Paper said that even judges in Hong Kong should be “patriotic" and that Hong Kong derived its autonomy from the central government. In other words, the autonomy was not something mandated by the commitment made by China in the joint Sino-British agreement but something that flowed from the generosity of the central government in Beijing. The subtext was that the autonomy could be withdrawn any time the Chinese government wanted to.

The White Paper did not specify that China will renege on the commitment on universal suffrage for the election of the chief executive of Hong Kong in 2017. However, its insistence on patriotism and love for the country on the part of the chief executive has raised doubts in many minds if China held the final veto on the selection of the chief executive. If so, universal suffrage in Hong Kong will be meaningless.

Chris Pattern, the former and the last governor of Hong Kong, has spoken out against the White Paper but the British government has been conspicuously silent. Le Keqiang, China’s Prime Minister, visited Britain last month.

We may not be fully aware of and understand the issues that have prompted the government in Beijing to issue the White Paper and the reactions to it. But, we should be concerned when businesses collude with authoritarian governments to speak out against democratic protests. Such a collusion will eventually be a death-knell for social stability, defeating the very purpose of the collusion. Hence, it is as short-sighted as it is dangerous.

Moneyed interests and the rich are already under the scanner because policies pursued by Western governments have favoured them over the interests of workers and the unemployed. Fostering inequality through deliberate policy choices and ignoring the consequences of those choices is dangerously provocative behaviour.

Governments are expected to mitigate inequality caused by technological changes and not aggravate it. In such a milieu, if business interests espouse the cause of authoritarian governments, they will be setting the stage for class wars to break out globally. This comes on top of geopolitical risks that are mounting steadily. The Chinese government has earned the distrust of most of its neighbouring countries with its brazen pursuit of territorial and maritime claims. Reading the top news in a Qatari newspaper while in transit on 9 July left this columnist in no doubt that West Asia had once again become synonymous with instability. Germany had asked the CIA station chief in Berlin to leave as another spying allegation against the US surfaced in Germany.

It appears that, in the US, there is really no government in charge as Washington abdicates its responsibilities to different interest groups, including the financial sector.

Unmindful of the anger they have stirred up already, business groups are pitting themselves against commoners. Alas, India is not immune to this global trend. In a stirring speech delivered at the Bangalore International Centre on 6 June, C.B. Bhave, former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Board of India, noted how the corrupt elite in India view the honest and the intolerable pressure they exert even at the highest level of the judiciary in the country to favour their interests.

In sum, unintentionally or not, political and business elites are preparing a dangerous brew of financial, political and social instability globally. Let us hope that the brew will burn them and not others.

V. Anantha Nageswaran is co-founder of Aavishkaar Venture Fund and Takshashila Institution.

Comments are welcome at To read V. Anantha Nageswaran’s previous columns, go to

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