Evil Overlords or Lucky Devils: The Men Who Rule Hong Kong

View of Hong Kong's Central district from Victoria Peak at night.

There was a time when few people in Hong Kong begrudged the city’s property tycoons. Most citizens respected their disproportionate share of luck and the determined way they had taken advantage of the system. Some even saw them as heroes with superlative acumen. But that was then and this is now.

Perhaps the tipping point was in 2009-10. A property boom was starting just as the government’s earlier moves to keep land off the market inevitably resulted in a shortage of new apartments. The developers used marketing practices designed to make the most of such scarcity. Would-be buyers were forbidden to use tape measures in the model showflats, which contained scaled-down furniture and glass walls to make the spaces look bigger. They were kept waiting, and it was nearing midnight when salesmen placed contracts before them. Sign or lose the chance – oh, and prices were due to rise the next day. People complained to the media about the high-pressure tactics and their bitterness resonated.

The major symbolic flashpoint was Henderson launching its 39 Conduit Road luxury high-rise in 2009. As a gimmick, the company offered lucky floor numbers like 88, even though the building had only 46 storeys. Rather than act amused, as once might have been, Hongkongers grew irate, calling Lee Shau-kee a conman. More seriously, Henderson announced suspiciously healthy sales at astoundingly high prices. To many, the transactions looked rigged to mislead gullible buyers as to the apartments’ market worth. The police even made a show of investigating. The growing assertiveness of Hongkongers since the 1990s played a crucial role here, as probably did the global backlash following the 2008 financial crisis. It certainly didn’t help that much of the younger middle class were seeing their chances of buying a home slipping away. Whatever the reasons, a new, received public wisdom came into being: Hong Kong property developers are evil, cheating, greedy devils.

When they go to meet their maker – and it can’t be long now for some of them – the tycoons could have a lot to answer for. The list of property-related rip-offs goes on and on, but the most notorious is undoubtedly the ‘square foot scam’. Here’s how it works: developers advertise an apartment as 700sq ft, yet in fact its internal area comes out at, say, 530sq ft. The missing space is your share of the stairwell, the lobby, the swimming pool and other communal space (the developers are pretty much free to include anything they like). It makes the flats sound bigger – or cheaper per square foot – than they really are. It’s a swindle. The ratio of true to untrue measurement is called ‘the efficiency rate’. You can even find yourself saying ‘wow, that’s pretty good’ when the efficiency rate is 80 percent.

Land auctions are also notorious. Although developers sometimes appear to compete at land auctions, they sometimes appear not to – even teaming up halfway through the bidding. Their timing can be uncanny, negotiating development rights with officials when the market is down and selling flats when the market is up, typically releasing them in small numbers or even leaving hundreds empty to squeeze maximum profit from buyers. They also focus on building luxury projects aimed at Mainlanders wanting a store of wealth, while ordinary Hongkongers give up hope of affording a home; those who fear even higher prices and take the plunge can sharply reduce their saving and consuming power for years just to own a shoebox.

As landlords, the developers dominate key parts of urban space – like around transport hubs – and gouge tenants with short leases and ever-upward rent hikes. Local independent retailers stand little chance. It’s also fair to say that tycoons care nothing for aesthetics or conservation, making tower blocks as bulky and boxy as possible – reducing light and airflow – and god help any heritage site they get their hands on. And let’s not get started on thin floors and dodgy walls and terrible plumping and other design-quality horrors.

Towering Hong Kong apartments.

It’s not just the property cartel…

Tycoons exploit market dominance elsewhere in the economy. When French hypermarket chain Carrefour tried to compete against the supermarket duopoly of Park n Shop and Wellcome, it failed to find enough suitable premises – remember who the landlords are – and wholesalers started to refuse to supply them. (If it’s any help, there are plenty of Carrefours, Wal-Marts and Tescos in Shenzhen.) It is not just consumers who are deprived of choice by the duopoly: groceries and electronics distributors are also at the mercy of the two retail chains that provide the bulk of their orders. They have little choice but to accept the prices the huge customers offer – and they have a track record of mysteriously refusing to sell to independent shop owners who undercut the big boys. If you don’t read much about this sort of anti-consumer behaviour it could be because parts of the media are similarly reliant on a handful of conglomerates for property and retail advertising revenues. The supermarkets are also accused of setting prices too low by pork vendors in neighbourhood wet markets who claim a deliberate attempt to drive them out of business. Visit your local wet market and chat with them about this matter (but steer clear if they get angry; they work with cleavers).

Here is your typical day in Hong Kong: after buying your groceries from Li Ka-shing, you hop on to one of Cheng Yu-tung’s buses to take you back to your Kwok brothers’ apartment to cook your food with, you guessed it, gas supplied by Lee Shau-kee. The regulatory regimes covering utilities like gas, electricity, buses and ferries offer their owners plenty of pricing power. Many people assume that the electricity companies, allowed a 9.99 percent return on (potentially excessive) capital investment, overcharge. The fuss last December when CLP cut its planned price rise from 9.2 percent to 7.4 percent and then to 4.9 percent suggests they have a point, though consumers on Hong Kong Island last year still paid almost a third more than those in Kowloon. With tentacles like these, it’s easy for the big conglomerates to bundle things together. If you buy a Henderson flat, you can be sure the water heater will run off gas. One developer, Hutchison, even tried to include its own telecoms services into Cheung Kong’s Banyan Garden estate management package before residents’ complaints made it back down.

Cartels also operate in other parts of the economy. Bid-rigging is common in the construction sector, as is price-fixing in construction materials, driving schools, container terminals and so much else. It all adds up to less competition: in other words, you pay more. Incautious small investors can also lose out, thanks to some tycoons’ approach to corporate governance and such practices as transferring assets from public to private entities cheaply or listing poor-value spin-offs. But the harm goes beyond our pocket books; the ‘property hegemony’, as the post-80s generation dubs it, is now clearly rotting our hearts and souls. Walk along the street in many middle-class neighbourhoods and you will often see four, five, six or more real estate agents where there used to be a hairdresser, a stationer, a photocopy shop and a mom & pop store. Property in Hong Kong is a pyramid scheme and there can be so much fast, easy money in it that it doesn’t make sense to invest in productive, let alone innovative, enterprise. As with all pyramid schemes, it periodically crashes; the losers are the little guys who are left in negative equity with a mortgage equivalent to 10 years’ salary and a little concrete box an hour away from Central. Meanwhile, our economic base gets narrower as fewer industries remain profitable in the face of inflated rents. With the tycoons making big bucks at the expense of everyone else, wealth distribution is getting more skewed. Although Hong Kong’s GDP per person grew 25 percent in the 10 years to 2010, the average household’s income actually fell slightly; the tycoons meanwhile accumulated more overseas assets.

The economic distortions are complex – but we can ask this question: is the only way to reverse the shrinkage of our middle class, the widening of the wealth gap and the ever-rising threat of public anger to… lynch the tycoons?

Donald Tsang addressing Hong Kong's Legislative Council.

Hold on – not so fast.

Let’s think of something polite to say about them. Our plutocrats donate massive amounts to charity. The bus rides, gas, electricity and groceries they sell us are actually cheaper than in many other parts of the world. And, hey, how many supermarket chains can one densely populated city expect to have? Most of all, the truth is that it’s not the tycoons’ fault. They are breaking no laws. Their conglomerates maximise returns to shareholders because that is the job of a company. Leave a dog in a room with some meat on the table and it will eat the meat. Allow companies to collude against consumers and sell nasty, overpriced housing at a huge mark-up and they will. The fault lies with the people who make the rules. So let’s turn the focus on our pro-business government.

Hong Kong was originally founded to serve the interests of business, not of its population. Government ownership of land was aimed at keeping taxes low. The tycoons did not devise this system; they have simply milked it (with a vengeance) while the government has done little to counterbalance their growing domination or address the broader impact on the economy and society. Since the 1997 handover, the government has been noticeably more proactive in serving the tycoons’ interests. The obvious example was tightening land supply to push developers’ profits back up after the crash in 1998. But the favours since then have kept coming.

In 2001, the government started exempting features like swimming pools and clubhouses from the land premium property companies pay. We were told it would encourage better-quality living conditions, but the developers enlarged such amenities and added the bonus space to the apartments’ advertised floor areas, thus transferring the free square footage they were granted into profit. For example, Sun Hung Kai created more than HK$300 million in sales value this way at the Arch. The net result was to encourage bloated designs or smaller flats. A ‘700-square-foot’ apartment today is typically 20 percent smaller than it was in the 1980s. But who seriously expected anything else? It was a handout for the developers. The same applies to the tax relief home buyers think they enjoy on their mortgage interest payments. With supply artificially tight, developers can simply raise apartment prices by the same amount the tax deduction would save consumers. The impact is minor but basic laws of economics dictate that the tax break – a subsidy from the rest of the population – in fact goes to the sellers. (To the extent it discourages energy saving, the electricity subsidy we all receive also seeps back into the two monopolies.)

In 2003, the government introduced the Capital Investment Entrant Scheme, supposedly to attract capital (of which Hong Kong had plenty) from overseas investors in exchange for residency here. In practice, it gave developers the right to give a free ID card with every property sold to Mainlanders, some of whom could be accused of laundering cash. It also reduced housing supply for locals and is one reason why Hong Kong currently has more than 200,000 empty apartments. (Note that under growing public pressure, officials suspended real estate from the scheme for three years in 2010.)

In 2004, the government announced that the West Kowloon Cultural District would be under a single developer, meaning one of the big four families – or a consortium – was guaranteed the whole area to play with (officials later backed down). In 2010 the government reduced from 90 percent to 80 percent the proportion of owners in old buildings who had to sell before a developer buying up the units could force the holdouts to do the same. It was supposed to speed up renewal of slums but, yet again, it serves the developers in practice by letting them kick out elderly and poor folk from their homes. Despite growing demands for more subsidised housing in recent years, the government creates as little as possible, in order to ‘maintain a healthy property market’ or, ludicrously, out of respect for a ‘free market’. The effect, of course, is to force you to buy from the property cartel.

HONG KONG, CHINA - NOVEMBER 27:  78 year old Leung Shu prepares to settle in for the evening beside his cage on the apartment floor which he now only shares with 4 other people on November 27, 2010 in Hong Kong, China. Hong Kong's property prices having soared over the past year with urban redevelopment shrinking the supply of older, cheaper blocks. Thousands of men still dwelling in 15-square-foot cubicles or cages are being forced to vacate premises as the properties are being sold to developers and low cost accommodation becomes more difficult to find due to increasing cost of rent. Approximately 1,000 or so men are still estimated to live in squalid and cramped conditions in old tenement flats as Hong Kong's yawning wealth gap widens. Leung Shu, suffering from chronic asthma, has been forced to cease his rental of monthly medical equipment due to rising living costs. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

All those handouts to the tourism sector, such as Disneyland and the cruise terminal, primarily benefit the landlords and hotel owners. To some extent, the rest of the economy actually suffers from tourism, via the cost of additional traffic and higher rents. Infrastructure projects, many of them vast and wasteful like the Zhuhai Bridge and the high-speed rail line to Shenzhen, appear to be built by international engineering groups. But the subcontractors who lay the concrete everywhere are local Hongkongers, and we can guess that many rank among our tycoons’ privately held interests. Spending on these projects is currently running at around HK$70 billion a year – 50 percent more than the healthcare budget. Even by letting middle-class families hire cheap overseas domestic help, the government boosts tycoons’ revenues. With housewives able to work full time – and housing kept scarce – double-income families bid up the price of flats. Who we are all really working for is a dirty, murky secret.

And it gets murkier.

Government officials have significant discretionary powers over property development rights. On numerous occasions, tower blocks that were supposed to be subject to a height limit have ended up bigger, thanks to mysterious loopholes in the paperwork. Land sold cheaply for hotel sites has ended up being developed as far more profitable serviced apartments. In exchange for putting a public bus terminus in the project, Henderson Land in 2001 was effectively allowed to double the number of flats at Grand Promenade in Shau Kei Wan, yielding HK$3bn in extra profit. The civil servant who okayed that, Leung Chin-man, later approved a deal to sell the never-used Hunghom Peninsula public-sector housing estate to New World for a pitiful HK$864m – half its then-value, and a fraction of its redevelopment potential. (New World later gave him a job.)

Our Independent Commission Against Corruption, meanwhile, busts secretaries of private clubs for taking small bribes from applicants for membership, as if the rest of us give a damn.

But perhaps the government’s biggest favour for the tycoons has been to do nothing. The ‘high land price’ policy of keeping housing artificially expensive remains untouched. The government’s land-sales tactics have left smaller developers out of the market, leaving bigger shares for the handful of giants. Moves to make developers treat homebuyers more fairly have been slow in coming – and the measures currently in the pipeline may well turn out to have loopholes. This will almost certainly be the case with the competition law currently before the legislative council. Much of the debate on the bill has been about the possible impact on smaller companies; the big conglomerates, on the other hand, show suspiciously little concern that any rules against price-fixing and bid-rigging – offences that put bosses in prison in most developed economies – will affect them.

So why does the government serve these guys rather than us?

The standard justification for the high land price policy is that it raises government revenue while keeping visible taxes down. This argument became invalid years ago. Indeed, it puts the cart before the horse: the government’s non-land revenues from normal taxes are low partly because inflated accommodation costs undermine economic vibrancy. The money we could be paying in taxes on earnings and consumption goes, via overpriced housing, to the tycoons who invest it overseas for themselves. The land revenues are earmarked for (often white-elephant) infrastructure projects, not for regular spending on healthcare or education, and we know in whose pockets much infrastructure spending ends up. The government recycles land revenues back to the tycoons. One all-too believable explanation for this extreme bias in favour of a clutch of families is that our leaders are stupid. Hong Kong is still essentially run by bureaucrats brought up on principles dating back decades, such as the colonial mentality that expenditure on things the public need or want is essentially a waste. The high land-price policy and freedom for cartels to operate are so ingrained in their thinking that officials barely seem to be aware of the alternatives.

Another answer is that our government officials are tycoons in disguise. Certainly, they like easy land revenues and the power they get from overseeing giant infrastructure schemes. And, of course, many of them have invested heavily in local property. We have to take their word for it that we have a squeaky clean civil service – but, as we have seen, the potential for backhanders is scary.

A third possibility is that the political structure is systematically pro-tycoon, for example through the functional constituencies in which a few business interests can choose a large chunk of the legislature and the body that pretends to elect the chief executive. Superficially, this is a good explanation; officials and chief executive candidates do pander to vested interests when they need their votes. But it may also be confusing cause with effect. Why do we have such a political structure in the first place?

This brings us to one other possible reason for our bewilderingly unfair economic system and it requires us to start treading on ‘don’t go there’ territory.

Hong Kong 1997 handover anniversary parade with Hong Kong and Chinese flags.

When Chinese officials first started preparing for the handover in the early 1980s, they courted the tycoons assiduously. They seemed to imagine that the big family-run conglomerates create, rather than skim off, Hong Kong’s wealth. With their eyes on the Mainland market, the tycoons played along, embracing profound, if rather sudden, patriotism and promising to keep Hong Kong prosperous. Time Out won’t put on a tinfoil hat and start spouting out conspiracy theories, but it is not beyond the realms of human imagination that post-1997 Hong Kong administrations have been operating under some sort of unwritten instructions from Beijing that the lawful traditional rights and interests of the indigenous tycoons shall be protected (to paraphrase the Basic Law’s Article 40 on New Territories inhabitants).

Since the 1980s China itself has learnt the ways of business and well-connected Mainland companies, often run by relatives of senior officials, are building empires, seeking favours from the government and suppressing competition. The parallels are far from exact but the Chinese economy is starting to take on some of the characteristics of cartelised, tycoon-favouring Hong Kong, where the rules are designed to serve the interests of the rich. It once seemed strange for the Chinese leadership to befriend Hong Kong’s plutocrats; increasingly, it now appears to be the natural order of things.

So what can you do about it?

First of all, don’t expect the next Chief Executive to make any serious changes after he takes office on July 1 of this year.

Henry Tang, who we can safely assume will get the job, is a born and bred part of the tycoon caste (his father minted money selling on the textile quotas the government granted his company to other clothes manufacturers). And, as we have explained, the system is entrenched. And don’t get any funny ideas about boycotts unless you can read by candlelight, grow your own food and fish out of the harbour.

So what can you do?

One thing you can do is wait.

The property giants won big buying large tracts of real estate during the 1967-68 turmoil and then utilities. They received further massive boosts to profitability from government policies to restrict land availability and allow cartel-type activity. The former advantage was a one-off; the continuation of the latter can’t be fully guaranteed, especially as Hong Kong people demand more competition.

The younger generation of tycoons have never known anything but extremely benign conditions under which their fathers couldn’t fail to make huge money easily. Some scions look rigorously groomed to take over, while others have nice cufflinks but possibly lack daddy’s Midas touch.

Also, the conglomerates employ professional managers – but they are family firms and the guy at the top is the emperor. It could all be downhill under the next generation.

Another course of action is to protest.

After all, Hong Kong deposed a Chief Executive by taking to streets in 2003 and a public backlash scuttled an over-greedy attempt to hike electricity prices a couple of months back. Public opposition, with a meek government in tow, is the main curb on oligopolies’ abuse of market dominance.

However, it takes a lot to get a massive crowd of Hongkongers on the streets. Marching with banners down Hennessy Road is one thing, but controlling a symbolic location with, say, 150,000 irate citizens demanding a change in government policy seems to happen only once in a blue moon. And yet it could still happen again if the winds change.

Another problem is that the less well-off have their subsidised housing to think about. And much of the organised labour is pro-Beijing and will obey even a pro-plutocrat party line. Many of the middle-aged middle classes also store their life savings in their flats and fear the prospect of cheaper housing, even if their own kids are priced out of the market.

In addition, the conglomerates are usually smart enough not to provoke public anger. It would help if citizens angered more easily and cohesively – but it is beyond the wit of our opposition politicians to mobilise public opinion against the economic dominance of a government-protected, parasitical business caste.

And so we conclude with a third option: live with it and count your pennies.

Hong Kong skyline by day.


Written by Time Out Hong Kong

Time Out magazine is the world’s leading arts, entertainment and nightlife listings magazine.

Now published in 20 cities around the world including London (since 1968), New York, Sydney, Shanghai, Dubai, Mumbai, Moscow, Delhi, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and now Hong Kong.


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