Crusader for the poor Ho Hei-wah shares his despair at the state of post-colonial Hong Kong
What were you doing on July 1, 1997?
I was planning a petition for right of abode for mainland children at the Immigration Department on the first working day after July 1.
How did you feel about Hongkongers being masters of their future finally?
So many things had happened before 1997 that were damaging to confidence, but I hoped people would have stronger feelings towards low-income people.
Have your hopes come true?
It's a great disappointment. The British, maybe because of their Christian tradition, were more sympathetic towards the low-income sector. After the handover, our values and traditions changed drastically. The government now stigmatises welfare recipients, saying their problem is one of personal failure. Worse still, many people share this view. I would say the problem originates from the nature of Chinese ... We talk a lot about social justice, human rights, traditional values and rule of law. When these conflict with people's interests, the latter prevails.
Have people changed or have circumstances changed?
We were refugees in the 1950s. Our economy began to thrive in the '60s, took off in the '70s and '80s. The '90s was an era of frenzied speculation, economic bubbles. When things go wrong, people flee with their money. When there's a chance of making money, everyone joins the money rush. The colonial government seldom incited the intrinsic bad nature of people. The present government has pointed the finger at some people. It's not an issue of rich versus poor, it's a conflict between the spirit of humanity and the spirit of individualism. The problem is most serious among the poor. Poor people are trampling on poor people.
Is our welfare policy going in the wrong direction?
Tung Chee-hwa, his administration and the business sector were adamant welfare groups were wrong. Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, in particular, hates social workers. They criticised us for asking for money from government. And welfare, they say, makes people lazy. If people work hard, everything will be fine. Now we have more problems than before: family violence, single-parent families ...
As society becomes more affluent, the problem of poverty seems to get worse.
Figures show abject poverty has worsened. Why are problems we face now more severe than those we encountered in the 1970s? We did not have people queuing for rice in the '70s. We are back to the '50s when people were running for their lives. Bear in mind our per capita income has surpassed many western countries. True, we should not put all the blame on the government. Globalisation hits everyone. But the government should at least provide the basics.
The government insists our safety net is sufficient. Is it simply because expectations in society have grown much faster?
If the benchmark is survival from starvation - like animals - we are about right. Still, some people have difficulty feeding themselves. They have to queue for rice. Expectations have, as a matter of fact, grown. People want a job, education for their children and a better life when the economy improves. The government has ignored their wishes. They have shifted the burden to welfare groups, business corporations for them to do more to help these people.
Why does it seem that upward mobility is vanishing in our society?
Wealth is now concentrated in the hands of a very small number of people. We used to have the notion of a 'trickle-down economy' where the wealth of the rich would ultimately benefit people at all levels. Now rich families host their wedding parties outside Hong Kong and organise pleasure trips to Japan. Poor people lead an increasingly difficult life.
Social workers and unionists have been blamed as trouble-makers.
How do you respond to that?
We cannot stir up a controversy if everything is fine. The colonial government abandoned its divisive tactics in the '80s when it opened up the political system. Engaging pressure groups in dialogue through the system worked. We have been moving backwards since 1997. We are labelled by the government as an enemy. Pro-Beijing figures have subscribed to a conspiracy theory. They accused us of having ulterior motives to confront the government.
Back to the right of abode issue, is that the most unforgettable event for you?
It affected me deeply. I understand now how powerful the Communist Party authorities are. I started talking to Mr Tung on how to deal with the problem when he was CE-designate in 1996. I'd thought it was a straightforward practical issue. I was so wrong. The battle shifted to the high plane of politics after the Court of Final Appeal ruling. When local NPC delegates accused the chief justice of trying to undermine the power of the central authorities over their jurisdiction under the Basic Law, we smelled a rat.
How was the pressure on you?
Enormous, unprecedented. The whole society was panicky, like facing a tsunami. Our office phone no longer worked - it was flooded with hostile calls. People were shocked when they were told by the government that allowing 1.67 million mainlanders to come would cost us hundreds of billions of dollars. People said bad things to me in restaurants.
What's your reflection on the abode saga?
We are all losers. The CFA lost its power of interpretation. Our rule of law was undermined by the NPC Standing Committee interpretation. Society was deeply divided. There's still a gulf between Hong Kong people and new mainland migrants. Values are distorted. It won't be easy to re-establish them. It's a big regret.
You were named by Time magazine in 1997 as one of the 25 most influential Hong Kong people. Can you make a difference?
As champions of the poor and the underprivileged, our influence is waning. Society has to provide room and government has to have broad-mindedness if we are to make an impact. We can only have influence if we are able to talk to officials and engage in positive interaction. We are not waging revolution.
You were honoured a Bronze Bauhinia Star award in 1998. What did you make of it?
Mr Tung did want to recognise our concern for low-income people. When he granted the award to me at Government House, he said to me 'Mr Ho, you're a nice person with a kind heart'. When the economy turned from bad to worse, he was under pressure to tighten the purse.
Soco (Society for Community Organisation) celebrated its 35th anniversary this year. What lies ahead?
We want concrete improvement. We don't see any. NGOs have no alternative but to do a lot of self-help projects such as recruiting volunteer tutors for needy students.
Any special feelings about the 10th anniversary of the handover?
It seems we're marching on the spot. In many aspects, we have moved backwards. We have to go back to the starting point to tackle the root of the problem, such as values. But I'm already 53.
How will Hong Kong look 10 years from now?
I'm pessimistic. Even if we surpass Manhattan, our low-income people won't have a better life. When I visited the United States in 1995, I went to see slums in big cities such as Chicago. I have visited the mainland more often in the past few years. Their changes are breathtaking.