Any other business

Don’t let China’s climate sins cloak its crushing of Hong Kong

6 November 2021

9:00 AM

6 November 2021

9:00 AM

China’s failure to bring anything new to COP26 surprised no one. The world’s worst carbon emitter offered no advance on President Xi Jinping’s earlier promise to reduce coal use after 2025 and bring overall emissions to a peak in 2030 — thereby negating for at least a decade much of the rest of the world’s efforts to clean up the planet. But spotlighting China as a climate sinner should not be allowed to cloak its other villainhood, as an abuser of human rights: so let’s not forget Hong Kong.

The fate of the once-British enclave and its future as an international business centre have been much on my mind lately. At an Oxford garden party, the former governor Chris Patten recalled my 1995 interview with him for The Spectator: ‘I told you so’ would be a fair summary of his view on China’s imposition of its ‘national security law’, crushing protest and local democracy today. At London’s Caledonian Club, the former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind lectured eloquently on the legacy of Sir John Cowperthwaite, Hong Kong’s laissez-faire 1960s financial secretary and the father of the economic miracle bequeathed by the colonial regime — even if Patten’s limited democratic reforms came too late to change political destiny ahead of the 1997 handover.

And over a seafood supper in London (at Parsons in Endell Street, since you ask) the former South China Morning Posteditor–in-chief Mark Clifford, now president of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong, updated me on the plight of the jailed media tycoon Jimmy Lai, whose company Next Digital and tabloid Apple Daily have been forced out of business. As a non-executive director of Next Digital, Clifford might have joined his ex-colleagues behind bars if he had not left for the US.

Finally, a source still in situ, who’d better remain nameless, tells me he suspects Beijing’s aim is to reduce Hong Kong to a trouble-free financial hub for south China rather than an international entrepôt; the recent launch of a single investment regime for Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong is a move in that direction, while the security law plus harsh Covid quarantine rules are achieving the same objective by deterring expatriates and prompting Hong Kongers who hold other passports to leave.


Without Cowperthwaite’s freedoms to do exuberant business under British-framed rule of law, why would anyone from elsewhere bother to invest? Pretty soon the regional action will have moved to Singapore and Shanghai, while Hong Kong — no more than a Chinese port that also offers shopping and banking — will be forgotten by the rest of the world, or so Beijing may hope. But it won’t be forgotten here: this column, at least, will wave a banner for Hong Kong freedom whenever it can.

Accident-prone

Barclays chief executive Jes Staley was lucky to last six years in the job. The cause of his departure, announced on Monday, is a regulatory investigation into what he told Barclays about his business relationship, during his earlier career at JP Morgan, with the convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein. When that story broke last year I predicted that Staley would not survive it, following previous mishaps in which he was fined by the FCA and forfeited a chunk of his bonus after trying to unmask a whistleblower, and became personally entangled in a tussle between his Brazilian brother-in-law and the private equity giant KKR, which shunned Barclays as a result.

Meanwhile, the activist shareholder Edward Bramson pursued, but eventually abandoned, a campaign against Staley’s plan to beef up Barclays’s investment banking arm for the umpteenth time at the expense of its consumer businesses — a strategy which certainly did nothing for the share price, currently well below where it stood on his appointment in 2015.

Staley’s internally promoted successor, C.S. Venkatakrishnan, looks a relatively safe helmsman as the battered ship of Barclays sails on despite yet another debacle on the bridge — while the accident-prone former chief heads for the horizon in his handsome 91ft yacht Bequia, laden with the extra year’s pay, some £2.5 million, to which he’s entitled on termination of contract to round out a total £25 million-plus take from his Barclays tenure. Just reward? I’ll let you make your own judgment.

Meta-rubbish

I’ve never used ‘meta’ as a standalone adjective or novelty suffix and I try to avoid the fashionable usage of ‘beyond’ — which turns out to be one translation of meta from the Greek. But I’m beyond irritated by Mark Zuckerberg’s choice of Meta as the new name for Facebook’s parent company.

The change, we’re told, signals his aim to build a ‘metaverse’ of virtual platforms in which billions of users will work, play and communicate with each other all day long — somehow disconnected from the problems of the real world, many of which have been amplified by uncontrolled nastiness and lies promulgated through Facebook itself. I discover that ‘meta’ also means ‘cleverly self-referential’, so if I describe Facebook’s rebranding as a meta pile of steaming hogwash, I think you’ll get my drift.

What interests me more is the way the elite of new American wealth such as Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and the influential Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel are drawn to visions of alternative civilisations — in virtual reality, on other planets, on tax-free man-made islands — while our own super-rich remain resolutely down-to-earth. Ignore Richard Branson’s rockets and look at his work on saving the oceans; or James Dyson with his 35,000-acre farm and Jim Ratcliffe with his project to rebuild the Land Rover Defender; or for that matter, the late Trevor Hemmings, a northern property billionaire whose trophy assets included Blackpool Tower and Preston North End football club. If they ever meet in the metaverse, I hope Hemmings lectures Zuckerberg on the things that really matter in this life, not the next.

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