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Hong Kong financiers join in fight for democracy

HONG KONG--When huge crowds took to Hong Kong's streets this week to voice anger at Beijing's ever-tightening grip, an unlikely group was marching in step: wealthy financiers fighting mainland influence over the city's markets and political life.

Joining rain-soaked protesters from all walks of life — who by organizers' estimates numbered a record half-a-million — was hedge fund manager Edward Chin.

Until this year, the unassuming 46-year-old had never joined a political organization. But like many others in Hong Kong, he has grown increasingly worried about the influence of China's Communist rulers — particularly Beijing's insistence that when Hong Kong's next leader is elected in 2017, the candidates must be drawn from a list of approved “patriots.”

Chin joined the nascent pro-democracy movement now known as Occupy Central after meeting one of its leaders, legal scholar Benny Tai, in March.

“I did my due diligence on Benny,” he joked.

Occupy Central, which has grown from a handful of activists into a powerful thorn in the side of Hong Kong's government, has threatened to paralyze the city's Central financial district with mass protests if its demands for electoral reforms are not met — so it may seem surprising that bankers are signing up.

But for Chin and other financiers who have formed their own faction within the group, the pro-democracy movement presents an opportunity to address what they see as China's outsized influence on Hong Kong's crucial financial sector.

A battle was raging between “old Hong Kong tycoons and mainland newcomers,” he said, over the upstarts' seemingly limitless but dubiously sourced supply of capital, and their predilection for appointing family members or those with “guanxi” — contacts — within the Communist Party and Chinese state-owned businesses.

Chin's group of 70 members are drawn from a wide range of banks and investment houses. While they represent just a fraction of Hong Kong's huge banking workforce, they have become a force to be reckoned with in the protest movement, using it to lobby against the growing clout of Chinese cash and nepotism in the sector.

“They are exceptional,” chief organizer Benny Tai told AFP. “The most active group of their kind (within Occupy Central).”

Their cash has certainly come in useful — the bankers have spent tens of thousands of dollars on campaign advertising and events in just a few short months.

An entirely separate budget and agenda allows them to concentrate on issues such as financial corruption and immigration policy that are not a priority for the “core” protesters.

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