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  • Sep 24, 2014
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SCMP Debate

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 June, 2012, 12:00am

Today's SCMP Debate is the second in a weekly series as part of our build-up to the 15th anniversary, on July 1, of the establishment of the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. In our second instalment, we ask six long-time residents how they view Hong Kong as a place to live and work compared with 15 years ago.

Eric Bohm

Former chief executive of WWF Hong Kong

A1 I can answer the question of the quality of life only from the perspective of an expatriate who has enjoyed the opportunity of living in this city.

I feel Hong Kong is a better place because over the past 15 years the Chinese community is increasingly responsible for its own destiny. I believe the 'one country two systems' works and we need to remember that historical adjustments such as the 1997 handover require longer than 15 years to settle.

It is my opinion that Hong Kong is also unique because it was being 'returned' to a mother country. This creates a special dynamic as we align with China, but continue to view the world and our role in it differently.

For an expatriate, the quality of life remains one of privilege compared to most of Hong Kong's citizens. The globalisation of business has reduced the income and benefit gap. This trend will continue as China takes its rightful place on the commercial and economic world stage.

As China expands Hong Kong will gain in self-confidence, which is not necessarily in short supply when facing the outside world. However, in our relationship with China we act differently.

We seem to be in a phase of self-censorship when we negotiate with our counterparts in South China. An example of this is reluctance on the part of our Environmental Protection Department to discuss with the mainland on the challenges we are facing about our air quality.

The EPD appears to hide behind the misinformation that the overwhelming majority of the pollutants come from the mainland, which allows them to avoid taking decisive action on such issues as cleaning up electric power generation and eliminating the older buses in Hong Kong.

Since 2004, if not earlier, Civic Exchange has established that 45 per cent of the air pollution in Hong Kong comes from Hong Kong. The solutions to our self-generated pollution are available; all that is lacking is the will to act.

Why? I suggest it is the functional constituency political system in which each constituency is primarily motivated by its own self-interest. The decision to renew the operating licences without insisting on a time line upgrade of the buses is a sad commentary on priorities.

In our environmental relations with the mainland we have opted for the 'softly softly' approach out of a fear of offending the mainland authorities. Yet in WWF's discussions with environmental officials from China they continually express disappointment that Hong Kong does not provide leadership in the issue.

This hesitancy reduces one important aspect of our quality of life in Hong Kong.

A2 I take considerable pride in residing in Hong Kong. It is a city where things get done. Where else in the world can a Canadian transport his native sport to a sub-tropical climate and create an ice-hockey league?

Like China, it has a 'can do' mentality, which is disappearing in the West. Also we have created a tremendous talent pool with great intellectual capacity because of an outstanding tertiary school system that too often goes unrecognised by the Hong Kong government. In WWF's work with government on fisheries they seem to accept foreign analysis as bona fide while ignoring Hong Kong-based academia.

It is a city of hope. It is a city of opportunity and it is my hope that the incoming government will see development beyond mega infrastructure projects and focus on the changing business model.

We need to adapt innovative and efficient technologies to properly manage our planet's increasingly limited resources. Some may call it the 'green' economy but I view it as a survival strategy for business.

If we do not start now we will lose to others, and that will be not only a wasted opportunity but also a waste of the available talent pool. The combination of decreasing natural resources, expanding populations and improved economic circumstances are making this restructuring of our business practices mandatory.

Please note: I am not saying we should move back to the cave.

A3 My first choice is Hong Kong. It is a dynamic city, efficient, beautiful when the air is clear. My wife and I have very deep friendships in Hong Kong. We leave Hong Kong reluctantly. It will always be a home of our heart.

Rob Chipman

Former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce

A1 To me, Hong Kong continues to be a wonderful place to live and work. There is no city in the world where I'd rather be. I always enjoy telling my overseas friends and business associates my Hong Kong story, how great the city has been to me and how much I enjoy living here.

We have our share of challenges and the most disturbing one to me is the environment. The air quality is now so bad that it should be unacceptable to all of us. I breathe this air. So does my family, my colleagues and all my friends. When I consider the long-term health effects, it is profoundly disturbing.

We have money. We have the knowledge base and the human talent to tackle the problem. For that reason, it really is frustrating to see how little progress is actually being made. We're better than that, so I'd like to see the new administration place air quality as a key priority. I'd like to see bold steps that would put us on a path to cleaner air, and an even more livable city.

Another challenge that I'd like to see addressed is the widening income gap between the rich and poor. This is an issue of basic fairness ... and it needs to be addressed. Government and business need to come together to educate, develop and bring more of the disadvantaged into the economic mainstream. I think this would benefit all of Hong Kong, not just the disenfranchised.

A2 Absolutely! It's a fascinating place to live. It's a great city for work and for career development. Hong Kong is a unique blend of high-velocity business, intense social interaction and amazing natural beauty that really is unmatched anywhere else in the world.

I love the fact that I can get around Hong Kong so easily, so almost everything is readily accessible. It's unlikely that you will need to spend precious waking hours trapped in a car commuting to work.

It has been said 'it's not the quality of life in Hong Kong, it's quantity of life' that attracts so many people. I'd agree. I do more in a typical work week. I meet more interesting people. I attend functions, events and socialise with more people than most of my overseas friends do in a month. Maybe two months.

People vote with their feet. Based on that, I'm not the only one who still sees Hong Kong as a beacon of hope and opportunity. In my business, almost every day I talk to young people starting their careers. They show a level of interest in Hong Kong that is as strong today as it has ever been. Yes, we have our share of challenges. We'll get some things right, others wrong, but at the end of day I have great faith, developed during my 27 years living here, that once we get focus, leadership and align our priorities, that serious issues like air quality can be improved.

A3 I am still fully engaged with my job, my career and my company. As long as that is the case, Hong Kong will be my home and that's the way I want it. Once my working life is over and I retire, then the choice will be more difficult. At that point, the work/life balance, which tilts markedly in Hong Kong's direction, shifts considerably.

When that day comes, would I prefer to live on the mainland? Thailand? Scottsdale? The south of Spain? These are all attractive places, but I've come to realise that I'm addicted to the buzz and energy of Hong Kong. I'm guessing that I'll be a 'lifer' here.

Yes, air quality is an issue, and Hong Kong is not a great choice for retirees on fixed incomes. But if you can solve the housing problem and find a place to live that doesn't cost an arm and a leg, then you can live well at a reasonable cost. And you'd be living in one of the most amazing cities in world.

Paul Fan Chor-ho

Veteran banker and stockbroker

A1 Overall, I think Hong Kong is a better place to live compared with 15 years ago as people now are more aware of human rights and democracy. Before the handover, many worried we would no longer have freedom of speech, but in fact we are still allowed to express our views freely. There are also a lot of newspapers, radio and TV programmes that freely criticise government policies.

From an economic perspective, the stock market is much bigger now than 15 years ago. We have had many mega-IPOs. Almost all the largest mainland banks, insurance and oil companies have listed in Hong Kong, and there are an increasing number of international firms listing here. This provides a lot of job and investment opportunities for people. Both the stock and property markets had ups and downs through the crisis in 1998 and the 2008 financial crisis, but the current markets are still better than before the handover.

Of course, I must admit those who work in the financial markets or those who have properties on hand are better off than those who don't. Asset prices have gone up over the years and that has caused a wide gap between the wealth of those who have assets on hand and those who don't. This has led to a feeling against wealthy people. Grass-roots people think they are neglected, while the middle class complains they pay high taxes but enjoy too little of the benefits. This has led to tension in society and I think this is not good. I hope those who can afford it will be willing to donate more to help those in need to remove the hatred against the rich.

A2 Yes, I am proud of being a Hong Kong resident. The handover of sovereignty from Britain to China was not easy but we have done that smoothly. The city has few natural resources but we still can create an economy that can house seven million people.

We are the lucky ones. When China was very poor in the 1960s and 1970s, we were a British colony and shared the economic growth of the Western world. Then, in recent years, when the US and Europe have been in trouble, China has become the world's second-largest economy. Before, we had to send clothes and money to help our relatives on the mainland, but now we rely on mainland tourists to spend. Hong Kong is in a special position: we enjoy the benefits from the growth of both China and the west.

I am also proud that Hong Kong people are willing to help others. In the past 15 years, I have seen more people seek the help of the Lions Clubs in Hong Kong, but at the same time, I have also seen there are more people who are willing to donate to help those in need. The Lions Clubs have raised HK$120 million in the past 15 years to cure the eye diseases of five million mainlanders. There were a lot of donations for the victims of the earthquake in Sichuan and other natural catastrophes on the mainland. This shows Hong Kong people are more aware of their social responsibility than before. With this spirit, I believe this is a city of hope.

A3 I am reaching retirement age, so now I have more time to travel. But I would still like to live in Hong Kong as this is the city I call home. I grew up here and all my friends are here. If I move to the US or Canada, my home may be bigger and the garden would be nice, but then the lifestyle there is so boring. The mainland has a lot of cities that are worth visiting but I do not want to live there as I do not have many friends there.

After travelling to many places around the world, I found Hong Kong is the best place to live as the city is convenient and is full of energy and has an exciting lifestyle. I also found it is a beautiful city if you have time to visit the many country parks that are so beautiful and easy to access. I walk the trails of different country parks two to three times a week. Many people complain about the pollution problems in Hong Kong. This is the case if you are in the city centre, which I think is no different from New York, London or Beijing. If you go to the countryside more, you will enjoy living in Hong Kong.

Bernard Lim Wan-fung

Professor at Chinese University's school of architecture and former president of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects

A1 Hong Kong has become a better place to live in compared to 15 years ago. There have been improvements in social equity through public engagement - Hong Kong has been very successful in encouraging citizen participation, especially in city planning decisions. For example, in the Central Police Station conservation project and the online voting for Central Market redevelopment proposals, we saw more consultation and engagement. Though some consultations are real and some are fake, this progress has still contributed to social equity. In addition, mainland cities are learning from our example.

Hong Kong people have become more aware of issues related to the living environment over the past 15 years. Such examples of increased citizen engagement include the 2003 judicial review where the Society for Protection of the Harbour successfully opposed the Wan Chai waterfront reclamation, and debate over the building of the Express Rail Link and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. The government has to put more effort into planning, conservation and environmental issues. Such works have became essential as society has demanded them. This is a positive change, but the downside is that works progress seems slower. The judicial review also shows why Hong Kong is a lovely place - it has an independent judiciary. Civil society can challenge institutions in court on city issues, which shows our social equity.

Hong Kong's younger generation values conservation more than before because of the impact of globalisation and a pursuit for a city identity. In calling for conservation of the Star Ferry Pier and the Queen's Pier, young people were the ones on the front line. Since the handover, the desire to search for one's roots is stronger, and young people are more willing to take the lead. This is gratifying. Hong Kong is a more mature society now. In the past, the focus was on hard standards like economic development, but now it is more on soft values.

We see improvements in air quality through more days with clear skies as a result of our co-operation with the Guangdong government. But there are more walled buildings in Hong Kong as part of more large-scale developments, causing an urban heat island effect and a degradation of our living quality.

A2 I take pride in being a resident of Hong Kong because of our core values - professionals working according to a code of conduct and with integrity. After the handover, Hong Kong's professionals were able to take part in bringing Hong Kong's values to our country, promoting the so-called 'Hong Kong brand'. For example, in participating in redevelopment projects in Sichuan after the earthquake, we brought to them our ways of work like quality control. I don't recommend accommodating to the mainland's ways of work when on the mainland, but we can learn from their qualities. As a university lecturer in architecture, the first lesson I teach is to uphold integrity. Hong Kong is a city of hope because we have these values.

A3 Hong Kong is my home and base. A third of the time I work on the mainland and I have rented a place in Shanghai. Hongkongers have the opportunity to be citizens of many cities around the world. We stand local and look global. It's one of the opportunities we got after the handover and one which I am enjoying. We need to maintain connections with different parts of the world. This is Hong Kong's great feature. Hong Kong is my base and where my roots are, but if I only stayed here, it would be too limiting. I have been participating in infrastructure building and cultural exchange projects on the mainland. We contribute with our attitude and our integrity. This is my aim in working on the mainland, and one of the duties which my God has called me to do.

Bernard Lim is also president of the Hong Kong Institute of Urban Design

Sit Pui-yu

Retiree who lives on CSSA at Wong Tai Sin public housing estate

A1 Hong Kong has certainly become a worse place to live in the past 15 years in all aspects, and inequality has become more noticeable.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has made it clear he is only out to help the rich and powerful at the top of the social pyramid. As an elderly rights activist with the Society for Community Organisation, I and others have requested many times to meet Tsang and he has always refused. I think he despises poor people, and you can tell this is the case by his unfair policies that have really stratified our society.

First of all, quality of life has gone down because of heavy inflation. I used to work in a restaurant, and the same wages today would buy a whole lot less. I used to be able to pay HK$26 for a meal, but now have to pay up to HK$40.

And if the new minimum wage of HK$28 an hour was supposed to help those at the bottom of the social ladder, then it has not achieved this and has in turn benefited those in power. The truth is, many workers already earn more than HK$28 an hour, and companies have used the excuse of the new law to raise their prices.

Quality of life is closely tied with social equity, and we have really begun to see the severity of housing problems manifest itself in people living in cage homes and subdivided flats. This would not have happened if Tsang had not pandered to property developers and ceased the construction of public housing.

But as much as public housing is needed, the last thing we need is another Tin Shui Wai. The reason why this 'city of sadness' has emerged is because we've put the poorest people in our society together in an isolated place far from the city centre far from the city centre with scant job opportunities. The result is that domestic violence and family tragedies erupt. And jobs are scarce because you have malls in public housing estates operated by companies under the Link real estate investment trust that charge sky-high rents - forcing small business owners out.

Another example that shows our society has become more unfair is the HK$6,000 government handout. Why did the government have to exclude the new immigrants, when everyone else from the rich to the poor got it? The Community Care Fund ended up having to provide the HK$6,000 to these new arrivals, which to me makes no sense.

And we have even had to mobilise the elderly to protest for the monthly old age allowance of HK$1,090, something we rightfully deserve.

As for the environment, the air pollution seems to be mostly coming from factories on the mainland. But what has been most problematic seems to be in finding solutions for waste management.

A2 Yes, I still take pride in being a Hongkonger because our freedom of expression has not diminished and you can tell that is the case by the regular staging of protests throughout the year. Our basic human rights as well as a just rule of law have been safeguarded over the past 15 years. Even though there has been conflict between police and protesters, I still think our freedom of expression has remained sacred.

I have hope for this city because we are a land of prosperity. We are not struck by natural disasters, and we are entitled to liberties that many of our neighbours are deprived of. Also, I am hopeful that the construction of public housing will be revived.

A3 I am passionate about Hong Kong, and I will spend the rest of my life living in this prosperous city. For this reason, I would never consider migrating. I also would not move to the mainland because, frankly, I don't have a home return permit. But even if I had one, I would not live there because of the abundance of fake or poisonous products, but most of all, because of the chilling political persecution of activists. If someone like me enters the mainland, I will probably disappear quite swiftly.

David Wong Yau-kar

Chairman of the Business and Professionals Federation and former president of the Chinese Manufacturers' Association of Hong Kong

A1 It feels as if there is more tension and discontent in the social environment, particularly concerning the wealth gap. Actually the widening wealth gap is a worldwide phenomenon, a product of globalisation. Hong Kong may be particularly hard hit because of the mainland factor, where China's opening up has brought a lot of opportunities initially, but much challenge and competition subsequently. The deindustrialisation of Hong Kong has intensified the process because grass-roots workers have lost their jobs in manufacturing. They were driven into menial service jobs in large numbers, depressing wages even further. What this illustrates is that when we look at problems like the wealth gap, working poor, middle class discontent and the lack of social mobility among young people, they might appear to be social problems. However, the root cause is economic.

Economic growth in Hong Kong has slowed significantly since the Asian financial crisis in 1997, and the business cycle has become much more volatile. There have even been periods of negative GDP growth, which was quite unheard of previously. As a result, it's natural that we would have fewer opportunities and that there is less upward mobility.

We should therefore revitalise and grow the economy. But we should look for more balanced growth that creates better and more diverse employment opportunities. We need a more diversified industry structure, such as development of the Six New Industries. We also need to fortify and upgrade our existing pillar industries, such as conventions and exhibitions.

Environmentally speaking, it's getting worse mainly due to congestion, and we don't have enough land for development. Infrastructure has developed slowly compared with 20 years ago. It is unbecoming of such an advanced city such as Hong Kong that people are forced to live in such extremely cramped quarters.

A2 Of course I take pride in being a citizen of Hong Kong. Our city has its share of problems, but overall, compared to other cities, Hong Kong is a liveable city. We still have a sound education system and an excellent public healthcare system. It's also a safe city with a low crime rate, a developed city with efficient transportation and infrastructure, and also a free city that is a hub where East meets West. These characteristics have never regressed. The only long-standing complaint is the congestion, the dense population, the lack of living space and not enough recreational and cultural facilities. Hong Kong also faces serious challenges: our health care system is under tremendous pressure from an ageing population and has to be reformed. We also have a long way to go in beefing up our retirement protection system. Overall, I think this city can continue to succeed if it could safeguard its core values - to remain open and free - and to be receptive to newcomers and new ideas. With all these elements, Hongkongers can continue to be innovative and solve various problems. I am confident in Hongkongers.

A3 I would not want to live elsewhere. I have lived abroad for 17 years for study and work. It's good to have spent time abroad, as it broadens one's perspectives. Having said that, I think Hong Kong remains an ideal place to call home. Hong Kong is part of China. It directly benefits from the dynamic growth in China and the vast and diverse opportunities that it offers. Meanwhile, under 'one country, two systems', Hong Kong can maintain its high degree of freedom. Therefore, Hong Kong enjoys the best of both worlds.

Some foreign countries might have a better living environment but they don't benefit from being at the centre of this dynamic part of the world like Hong Kong does. In mainland cities, they might enjoy strong growth, but they do not have the freedom and the international connectivity Hong Kong has. Hong Kong remains a good base for developing a business or a career.

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