Have you ever wondered what it is like to be living in an urban setting surrounded only by a few enormous conglomerates that control your everyday life? For UK readers, imagine living in a ‘Tesco Society’ where you would do groceries at Tesco with your Tesco Bank credit card. You would also take bus and train services run by Tesco Transport, alongside many restaurants on the streets, by Tesco Catering. When you had finished your work, you returned to your home, which would happen to be built by Tesco Construction and sold through Tesco Property. In such a ‘Tesco Society’, your everyday life would rely on Tesco, and almost every penny you spend would go to Tesco, albeit in varying economic sectors. Essentially, Tesco monopolised the circulation of capital (see Harvey, 1978) and substituted the market in this imagined society. This is, of course, an exaggeration and serves only as a thought experiment, but unfortunately, the case of Hong Kong is frighteningly similar to the ‘Tesco Society’ only that it is a property state (Haila, 2000; 2015) in which Tesco is replaced by an enormous property sector.
In Hong Kong, real estate hegemony refers to the ’unregulated abuse by a few entrenched mega powerhouses of their dominating market position in economic sectors that affect the everyday lives of Hong Kong society’ (Poon, 2011, p.46). Many of these enormous conglomerates are reigned by a family: the Li’s Cheung Kong (CK) Holdings; the Kwok’s Sun Hung Kai (SHK) Properties; the Lee’s Henderson Land Development (HLD); the Cheng’s New World Development (NWD) Group; the Pao and Woo’s Wheelock andSh Company; and the Kadoorie’s CLP Holdings. These family-based conglomerates have businesses in property development, infrastructure, ports and logistics, telecommunications, hotels, retail, manufacturing, and the energy sector (ibid). Their subsidiaries may have a different name from the parent company, but a substantial portion of Hongkongers’ income goes to their pockets. These property conglomerates constitute a significant part of Hong Kong’s economy.
The influence of these conglomerates is not limited by the city’s border but has expanded far beyond. Just like Singapore, the world is Hong Kong’s hinterland (Haila, 2015). For example, CK Holdings has an extensive portfolio of property assets in mainland China, the UK, and Singapore, and some diversified businesses in infrastructure and utility in continental Europe, Australia and Canada. Particularly in Britain, many public services like the UK Power Networks, Wales and West Utilities, Northumbrian Water, Eversholt Rail, and a large pub and beer company, Greene King, are owned by CK Holdings. Property developers in Hong Kong are significant players in the global capital market.
There is an old saying that ‘power in Hong Kong… resides in the Jockey Club, Jardine and Matheson, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, and the Governor – in that order’ (Hughes, 1976, p.23). This indicates the dominance of the business sector in Hong Kong politics ever since the colonial time (Lui and Chiu, 2007). Although the change in Hong Kong’s electoral system in 2021 has curbed the political power of the business community, property developers still play a key role in the governance of Hong Kong due to their formidable economic power and social penetration via their divergent businesses. This is best captured by how Hong Kong dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the property sector has played a major role in supporting the government’s pandemic response policies. Despite the government’s repeated calls for vaccination, stagnated low vaccination rate, especially in the over-80s age group (only 44%), has seriously undermined Hong Kong’s Dynamic Zero COVID approach. For that goal, property developers have used various incentives within their economic reach to induce a higher vaccination rate. CK Holdings, for example, has launched a lucky draw that only Hong Kong residents who have been double-vaccinated in Hong Kong are eligible to enter. The prize pool consists of vouchers worth a total of HKD$ 20 million, approximately £2.03 million, which can be used on purchasing properties from the CK Group. The grand prize is valued at HKD$ 5 million.
Similarly, the HLD Group has also launched an ‘Early Vaccination Incentive Scheme’ in which the prize pool worth around HKD$ 10 million, including three hundred taels of gold and vouchers to be spent on any shopping malls and supermarkets under HLD. This is financed by the HLD Anti-Epidemic Fund, which has already contributed HKD$ 120 million worth of medical equipment and financial aid to those in need. SHK also initiated the HKD$ 10 million worth of ‘Day Day Lucky Draw’, which ran for 62 days consecutively. NWD offered HKD$ 1,000 vaccination grants to 5,000 underprivileged beneficiaries and has installed numerous face mask dispensers across Hong Kong, allowing grassroots families to acquire face masks weekly for free. Furthermore, their ‘Share for Good’ initiative has raised and distributed over HKD$ 40 million in donations and supplies to 100,000 underprivileged families.
Apart from financial aid, property developers in Hong Kong also borrowed some of their lands to help the government expand their isolation facilities. The latest wave of COVID-19 during February and March has pushed Hong Kong’s medical facilities to the brink. As a result, the government built eight isolation and treatment facilities across the city, and some were on lands lent for free by land developers. NWD, for example, lent 3.5 hectares of large land to the government to build isolation facilities, and so did SHK and HLD.
Enterprises joining together to support society in fighting the epidemic is not uncommon globally in the case of COVID-19. In the UK, for example, Uber offered free rides to critical workers and people going to vaccination appointments, and Deliveroo helped deliver 1 million free meals to NHS staff and vaccine centres. Tesco and Boots also offered help with vaccine rollout, and various supermarkets have dedicated specific hours for NHS and key workers during the lockdowns. What makes the Hong Kong case peculiar is the sheer size of the financial support coming from the property sector and how their economic might channels to beneficiaries through their vastly diverse businesses. For instance, vouchers from CK, HLD and SHK can be used on businesses under them which range from supermarkets, and department stores, to public transport, utilities, and even residential property. In other words, their vouchers they gave out will ultimately circulate back to their pocket.
Twenty-two years after Haila (2000) wrote about property states, her account of Hong Kong remains insightful today. In Hong Kong, real estate not only ‘plays an important role in the economy, public revenue and the wealth of people’ (Haila, 2015, p.35) but is also powerful in the public health policy domain that does not seem immediately relevant to their land power. Their prominent position in both politics and society is conditioned by the ‘executive-led, quasi-democratic government articulates with the public ownership of land and its management through the leasehold system’ (La Grange and Pretorius, 2016, p.506). As shown in Hong Kong’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, the conglomerates strategically deployed their land resources or wealth generated from lands to support the governance of Hong Kong.
While the COVID-19 case shows a positive picture of public-private partnerships in the property state, that is not always the case. Fong (2015) argues that in the post-colonial context, the increasingly fragmented business interests among the local capitals and the business elites’ growing disconnection from the community mean that even though the power of the business sector is institutionalised into the state, it represents only the interests of very few business elites. Moreover, they are keen to deploy their close ties to the sovereign state in Beijing to leverage against the Hong Kong government for policy outcomes that suit their needs (Goodstadt, 2005). Consequently, the post-colonial property state is disarticulated from both wider business interests and public interests. Hong Kong has since become a ‘crisis-ridden city’ (Chan and So, 2002, p.363), in sharp contrast to the functional property state of Singapore (Haila, 2015).
Indeed, Churchill (1909) has warned about this land power: ‘land monopoly… is by far the greatest of monopolies… it is the mother of all other forms of monopoly’ (p.3). When lands are concentrated in the hands of a few, unequal wealth distribution and income inequality become the structural conditions of the society (Yau and Cheung, 2021). The political economy of the property state constrains its governing capacity and has made it increasingly difficult to balance public and private interests. Nonetheless, since 2019, China has been aggressively asserting its ‘comprehensive jurisdiction’ over Hong Kong. With the reconfiguration of Hong Kong’s political economy and the newly ‘elected’ leadership, it remains to be seen whether more involvement of Beijing in Hong Kong politics could re-articulate the state-business coalition and re-balance the public-private interests.
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About the Author
Matthew Chan is a recent MSc China in Comparative Perspective graduate from the LSE, where he is awarded the Fei Xiaotong Prize for the best dissertation of the programme cohort (2021-2022). Prior to this, he studied for BA Combined Honours in Social Sciences at Durham University. His research interests include political transformation in Hong Kong, the comparative political economy of China and Europe, and urban governance.