HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - When China regained control of Hong Kong more than two decades ago, the Communist Party entrusted the city's wealthiest tycoons with enormous influence over local politics.
This week President Xi Jinping took his most dramatic step yet to grab some of that power back.
Mr Xi's sweeping overhaul of Hong Kong's electoral system - aimed at neutralising pro-democracy voices - will curtail the clout of billionaires such as Mr Li Ka Shing and Mr Lee Shau Kee, who used to wield effective control over a quarter of the seats on the 1,200-member Election Committee that decides Hong Kong's chief executive.
Under the new system, the moguls will lose more than 10 per cent of their votes to smaller businesses and mainland Chinese companies. The committee will also add 300 more seats filled mostly by Beijing loyalists, further diluting the tycoons' power.
It's the latest sign of a fall from grace for Hong Kong's wealthiest families, who have been blamed by some Chinese officials and state media for failing to prevent anti-government protests in 2019 or fix deep-rooted problems like housing affordability. Beijing's reliance on the tycoons has also shrunk markedly in recent years as China's economy ballooned into a US$14 trillion (S$18 trillion) behemoth.
"The biggest loser in the overhaul is Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp; the second-biggest loser is large property tycoons," said Mr Ivan Choy, who teaches politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"Beijing no longer wants to negotiate with them at key elections."
One of the biggest sources of friction is Hong Kong's property market, the world's least affordable. The city's sky-high home prices stem from a colonial system that limits land supply while auctioning available plots with a government-decided floor price. Local property moguls, who control the bulk of the city's buildings, have long been viewed as the biggest beneficiaries of the system and most opposed to any reforms.
Hong Kong's top 19 wealthiest people have a combined net worth of about US$272 billion, which is equivalent to 74 per cent of the territory's gross domestic product, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Most of them made money starting out in the property business.
In an interview this week, Mr Leung Chun Ying, who served as the chief executive of the city for five years through June 2017, said the new electoral system will help the government tackle livelihood issues, including a shortage of housing.
"This is the root of a lot of social and economic problems in Hong Kong, housing shortage," Mr Leung told Bloomberg Television on Tuesday (March 30).
The comments by Mr Leung, who is now the vice-chairman of China's top political advisory body, mean Beijing wants the local administration to focus on resolving longstanding problems afflicting the former British colony.
Some of the tycoons came under fire at the height of the 2019 protests. For instance, the 92-year-old Li - Hong Kong's richest person - drew Beijing's ire after he published a vague message in local newspapers that was widely interpreted as a call for not only halting the violence on Hong Kong's streets, but also stressing freedom, tolerance and the rule of law.
China's top law-enforcement body accused the tycoon of "encouraging crime".
Call for 'patriots'
The electoral revamp signed off by Mr Xi allows national security police to vet candidates for the city's Legislative Council, a step that would snuff out all pro-democracy voices and align with Mr Xi's call for "patriots" to run Hong Kong. The US, UK, Japan and the European Union have all condemned China's moves.
In the previous system, top tycoons controlled key votes in deciding the chief executive, Chinese University of Hong Kong's Mr Choy said. While they had traditionally voted for the candidate favoured by Beijing, there were times when they came close to defiance, he said.
During the 2012 election, Beijing's favoured candidate, Mr Leung, won with only 61 per cent of the votes - the lowest among all chief executives - with many tycoons showing support for their peer billionaire, Mr Henry Tang, siding with the pro-democratic opposition camp. Local press widely reported at that time that China's liaison officers in Hong Kong had to step up their efforts to rally support for Mr Leung.
Besides Mr Li and Mr Lee, who founded two of Hong Kong's best-known business empires, Mr Adam Kwok, from the family behind the city's largest developer, and Mr Adrian Cheng, whose family owns a jewellery-to-property conglomerate, were also on the last committee for the 2017 chief executive election. Representatives for Mr Li, Mr Lee, Mr Kwok and Mr Cheng didn't respond to requests for comment.
Yet some of the tycoon electors are rallying behind the new system. Hang Lung Properties, whose chairman Ronnie Chan was on the Election Committee in 2017, said the group is supportive of China's move "to improve Hong Kong's electoral system". Mr Robert Ng, head of Sino Group that owns properties including the Far East Finance Centre and the Conrad Hong Kong hotel, expressed enthusiasm in a statement sent to Bloomberg News through a representative.
Mr Ng fully supports the change "as it enhances the one country, two systems principle and adds greater stability and prosperity to the livelihood of HK people", according to the statement.