Earlier this week I attended a two-day lawyers’ conference at a hotel in Admiralty. The annual event brought together in-house counsel and private practitioners across Asia to discuss the latest regulatory issues and capital markets developments. Most non-lawyers would rather get a rectal exam than go to one of these things.
This was my third year at this particular conference. While a majority of the attendees were expat lawyers based in Hong Kong, there was no shortage of legal professionals flying in from Singapore, Shanghai, Seoul and Mumbai. The fact that the event takes place in Hong Kong year after year is evidence that our city is still the leading financial hub in the region.
One of the interesting topics discussed at the conference is “Doing Business in China.” During the segment, panel speakers swapped war stories from recent transactions in the Mainland, notably those that took place during the IPO boom spurred by a relaxation of securities regulation. In the Wild Wild West of high finance in China, convoluted regulation, overlapping layers of government authorities and an unpredictable judicial system conspire to create a rough and tumble business environment that can faze even the most seasoned of bankers and lawyers.
The collective sense of frustration toward doing business in China at the conference resonated with my recent retrospection after watching a documentary series on television. The series examined the progress of reform three decades after Deng Xiaoping’s Reforms and Openness (改革開放) initiatives that opened up the country to the rest of the world. Legal scholars interviewed by the reporter lamented that, despite all the promises of political reform, little has materialized. Just a few months ago, President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) made a disconcerting statement at a state event declaring the interests of the people, represented by the Communist Party, supreme in Chinese courts. The statement left little doubt that the rule of law still takes a backseat to the rule of the autocrats no matter which way you look at it.
As we well know and mourn, China’s national agenda is heavy on the economy but light on political reform. The direction in which the country is heading is creating much confusion in the Mainland and Hong Kong, as citizens’ sentiment vacillates between pride and embarrassment depending on which news report they read. On the one hand, Beijing is quick to celebrate the country’s accession to the world stage, putting up skyscrapers in elite cities, sending a man to the moon and rubbing shoulders with dignitaries at G-20 meetings. On the other hand, China still exhibits many traits of a third world country: a totalitarian government that controls everything from overseas travels to Internet contents, a politically neutered population that views self-censorship as a virtue and a morally-bankrupt business community that poisons consumers with contaminated foods and goes unpunished because of widespread corruption.
The mounting tension between self-awareness and state control is fueling a national identity crisis in China. The crisis manifests itself through sporadic social unrests and civil movements in various parts of the country, which will increase in both scale and frequency unless the fundamental issue of political reform is addressed. I don’t know when that day will come, but the optimist in me looks forward to the day when “doing business in China” is no longer a topic of discussion at the lawyer’s conference.