When crime hits below the poverty line

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 March, 2007, 12:00am

Yuen Ka-fai is recovering from the injuries he received while being robbed of HK$470, a sum that will seem trivial to many readers. For Mr Yuen, it represents as much as 23 days' pay. The 79-year-old ekes out a living collecting discarded cardboard from the streets, and is paid as little as HK$20 for his work - or HK$40 on a good day. This supplements his welfare payments, which are declared to be totally adequate by well-heeled bureaucrats.

In all likelihood, his assailant is also somewhere close to the bottom of the poverty line, because robbing old men at 4am is not the trade of sophisticated criminals. Nothing is known of this thief except that he yielded to Mr Yuen's pleas for the return of HK$20, so that he wouldn't be totally penniless.

This desperate and heart-wrenching kind of criminality is described in the United States as poor-on-poor crime, which attracts no more than modest police attention and is barely reported in the media. Generally speaking, this indifference is also evident in Hong Kong - even though thefts from poor people account for a large percentage of robberies.

The poor steal from the poor because they tend to be easy targets - of interest only to the truly desperate. But what about an attack on a low-income person ordered by someone of far better means? Such a case was in the courts this week when four men were convicted of murdering Ho Wai-ha, a 40-year-old newspaper vendor. She was engaged in a campaign rejecting a distributor's order that vendors should pay for unsold copies of the Oriental Daily News and The Sun newspapers. Ms Ho was a brave woman to stand up for the rights of newspaper hawkers, who make a meagre living.

As Mrs Justice Verina Bokhary made clear, the men who were convicted for her death were highly unlikely to have masterminded the murder. Indeed, she said that the criminals could hope for leniency if they helped the police identify those who ordered the attack. One of the four men had previously provided precisely this kind of identification, but later withdrew his allegations.

So we can assume that they prefer to suffer very long jail sentences rather than face the dangers of disclosure.

There is a pattern here of using working-class thugs to carry out crimes for rich people who remain protected by a barrier of fear and privilege. The men who attacked legislator Albert Ho Chun-yan have also been convicted, but the people believed to be behind the attack remain at liberty.

This gives rise to the impression that the rich can get away with crime while the poor cannot; or maybe they can as long as they are only attacking poor people. This impression is not entirely fair, because the police face formidable difficulties getting hired thugs to reveal who hired them. The hired hands know that the price of shopping the masterminds can be fatal, while the monetary rewards for keeping silent can be substantial.

This is hardly a unique Hong Kong phenomenon, but the city prides itself on being relatively crime-free. The police issue regular assurances that organised crime is well under control.

But the truth appears to be otherwise, because not only are crimes against the poor under- reported, but organised crime has reached such a stage of sophistication that it blends into legitimate business in ways that make it hard to disentangle the two.

All of this, however, begs the question of why in prosperous Hong Kong a 79-year-old man has to rise before dawn and prowl the streets in search of a few dollars to keep him from sinking into unbearable poverty.

No doubt the self-righteous opponents of welfare assistance will proudly proclaim that this is what self-reliance is all about. Others will see it as nothing less than a disgrace.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur