The big squeeze

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 October, 2007, 12:00am

Returning to Hong Kong from a brief visit overseas, one is often struck by little headlines that would normally go unnoticed but suddenly seem to say a lot. Here are two. The South China Morning Post's classified advertisement section proclaims that 'about 50 per cent of readers have two cars'. Surprised? Well, it would hardly be surprising in the United States or Germany, for example - countries with per capita incomes supposedly similar to Hong Kong's.

But put that statistic back into the Hong Kong context and it takes on a new meaning. Hong Kong had just 359,000 private cars at the end of last year - one for every 20 inhabitants - largely because of the lack of space and high taxes.

Thus, the Post's reasonable boast to advertisers of its readers' affluence is also a testament to Hong Kong's ever-increasing income inequality. The chances are, too, that a high proportion of those Post-reading car owners live in Mid-Levels, Happy Valley, Kowloon Tong and other urban areas where car ownership is more of a luxury than it would be for residents of remote but impoverished Tin Shui Wai, say.

That, in turn, says two more things that are noteworthy. First, that this car-owning elite (which includes me) is a huge contributor to the appalling levels of air pollution and consumption of vast areas of land for roadways. The high taxes for fuel and registration in no way compensate for the costs we pay in lost land opportunity and building expenses.

The bloated, overpaid senior bureaucracy has a vested interest in maintaining this situation, as it enjoys the free use of many car parks in central locations, which makes driving to work a natural choice rather than using public transport. That is not to mention the ranks of self-important, upper-middle-level bureaucrats who swan around in chauffeur-driven, government-owned cars and regularly ignore traffic rules.

Granted, commercial vehicles pollute more than cars. But a lot could still be done with cars to reduce pollution and improve income distribution, including:

Encourage private vehicles to convert to LPG - at present, because of a typical official surrender to vested interests, it is not even allowed.

Enforce stringent emission controls, focusing on both quality and quantity.

If the government is not prepared to impose road pricing, it should use a registration tax as a proxy.

The road and parking subsidies for government employees should be abolished, and applied to subsidising the extension of the MTR - an investment more than justified by the public health benefits. The government already recognises, with its recently introduced transport subsidy scheme, that transport costs combined with housing policy can be a major impediment to job creation for the likes of unskilled Tin Shui Wai residents. So there is no 'principle' here to be debated.

The second news item I noticed could be considered bizarre if it were not for the grief that a supposed Hong Kong singing star caused to a succession of poor, defenceless Filipinos. It said that, in the space of three years, Jacky Cheung Hok-yau and his wife had hired and fired no fewer than 21 maids.

That says a lot not only about these two personalities, but about the wider issue of abuse of maids by a government that seldom enforces its own laws on minimum wages and other conditions - and gives free rein to no fewer than 1,752 recruiting agencies. Nor does it allow victims of the likes of the Cheung family - most of whom will have paid large sums up front to the agencies - to remain in Hong Kong long enough to find another job.

There are two maids for every three private cars in Hong Kong - a unique statistic. Therefore the treatment of maids says a huge amount about official attitudes as well as the social attitudes of the top 10 per cent of households.

It is true that some governments, such as Singapore's, create even worse conditions for domestic helpers. But the position of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's government on this issue combines both racism and the accustomed arrogance of the ruling class towards the poor.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator