A marketer’s view from Hong Kong: What happens when political idealism meets commercial pragmatism?

Andrew Harrison learnt his trade as marketing director in Europe and the US for P&G, Coca-Cola and Nestle, before a decade in the UK as CEO for both client and media businesses at Muller Dairy and RadioCentre respectively. He was marketer of the year and chairman of MGGB back then when the marketing world was western and analogue. Now, he's based in Hong Kong, working across Asia for WPP's strategy and identity business, Brand Union, and helping discover the stories and insights that put Asia at the leading edge of marketing practice today.

Two campaigns for greater political freedom of political expression have dominated the news in the last month.

In the UK, the Scottish Referendum reached its climax with the decisive enough “No” vote from 55 per cent of the electorate against separation from the rest of the UK, while in Hong Kong, we’ve seen a week of ever-growing (but always peaceful) demonstrations for universal suffrage in this Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China.

For British readers, the Hong Kong campaign may need a short explanation:

In 2017, Hong Kongers will elect their next city mayor (rather charmingly called CEO in this business-led city). For the first time, this will be by universal suffrage or one man-one vote. So far, so good – you might think.

Indeed, until now, the CEO role has been a Beijing-led communist party appointment. Yet there’s a catch. While Hong Kongers will be able to vote, candidates will be pre-screened and vetted by Beijing before being accepted as eligible to run.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this caveat has split Hong Kong into pro-Beijing pragmatists for whom limited democracy is better than none and pro-Hong Kong nationalists for whom fake democracy is no different from authoritarian rule.

Yet, the nuances suggest Hong Kong and Scotland’s situations are more similar than we might think, especially when looked at through the prism of those of us who hold both a British Passport and Hong Kong ID.

Both Scotland and Hong Kong are small countries (although neither are sovereign states) supported by more populous and economically powerful neighbours who set their political and financial framework. Both have been campaigning for a greater say in their own affairs.

The parallels are uncanny: both countries could make a viable case for economic self-sustainability (Scotland from oil and gas; Hong Kong from financial services), while most informed commentators would observe that both face a far more certain (and likely more prosperous) economic future as an indelible part of either Great Britain or Greater China respectively. Both areas have considerable devolved powers – in practice enough to satisfy majorities in both countries that the status quo is preferable to independence – and yet both hanker after greater autonomy.

For both, the reason for current dissatisfaction is at heart the same: unease (at best) through to rejection (at worst) of a political and economic framework that is led from the capital city of their bigger neighbour. In practice, inside both democratic UK and centralist China, both these small, fiercely proud countries challenge intervention and leadership from London or Beijing.

It’s tempting to think that’s where the parallels end and that the resolution of the unrest in Scotland (via a huge populist referendum with 90 per cent turnout) is somewhat more ideal than the risk of tear gas and pepper spray on the streets of Hong Kong. And of course it is… except for one nagging reality.

Voters in Scotland reject a “democratic” electoral system where winner takes all (often on less than 50 per cent of the vote) and where candidates for London-based political parties are pre-selected based on patronage and party loyalty to fight local parliamentary elections in Scotland. Campaigners in Hong Kong reject an “undemocratic” electoral system where winner takes all and where Beijing-backed candidates for the HK CEO role are pre-selected based on patronage and party loyalty. Sounds familiar?

So, the true difference is not necessarily in the mechanics of the electoral system itself – only in the response of the ruling government. In the West, we value diversity and tolerate opposition – especially within the context of freedom of political expression; in China, on the other hand, the value is on “love of the country” over individual expression. Not necessarily black and white, neither necessarily right nor wrong. But certainly different.

Intriguingly, this difference in approach between tolerance and conformity lies at the heart of China’s economic expansion – of which Hong Kong, ironically, is arguably the greatest beneficiary. The breakneck expansion of the Chinese economy in the last 20 years has been facilitated by an uncompromising state-led approach – five year plans, infrastructure build, capacity growth, currency liberalisation and so on – all of which are made possible by a state-led approach.

By contrast, infrastructure investment in UK – think fracking, HS2 or a third London airport – is mired in inquiries and submissions from self-serving lobby groups.

For Hong Kong, the choice will be where the balance falls between political idealism and commercial pragmatism. Despite the cheerleading from the West, it seems clear to me that Hong Kongers will accept limited democracy as the price to pay for economic growth.

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