On the fast track to a divided society
Few political scientists would disagree that Hong Kong is ripe for democracy, thanks to its high level of economic development and relative lack of deep-seated political, ethnic, religious or cultural cleavages. The colonial administration suppressed possible conflict between communist and Kuomintang sympathisers in the post-second-world-war era by shelving democracy. Hong Kong's predominantly Chinese society has lived, worked and worshipped cheek by jowl with other ethnic minorities without friction.
Yet, every now and then, spasms of conflict would flare up - over a five cent increase of ferry fares in 1966, the demolition of Queen's Pier and, currently, over the construction of the high-speed rail line, a project hailed by the western media as eco-friendly and welcome by the masses. Newsweek reports that the most popular destination in Beijing now is the Beijing South railway station, which will be able to handle up to 105 million high-speed passengers annually by 2030. Mega stations serving as multi-modal hubs are bound to create new business opportunities in the transport, retail, restaurant, tourism and related sectors - precisely those areas where Hong Kong entrepreneurs excel.
Yet opponents argued with frenzied passion that the express rail line in Hong Kong would benefit only 'a few thousand rich', just as it had been argued before that the enactment of the national security legislation would take away all rights and freedoms of Hong Kong people, and that the demolition of Queen's Pier would destroy the last fragments of Hong Kong people's 'collective memory'. In a reprise of the dramas over Article 23 and Queen's Pier, the fracas over funding approval for the rail line is the establishment's living reminder that, in the words of W.B. Yeats, 'the best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passional intensity'.
The high cost of the express line is also cited as a strong ground for objection. Yet, if the three kilometre Western Island Line will cost more than HK$15 billion, and the seven kilometre South Island Line, only partly underground, is slated to cost more than HK$7 billion, is the final bill of the 26-kilometre express line, at HK$66.9 billion - including construction of the rail line, a huge terminus and other works - so out of line?
Right or wrong, the protesters see the project as a symbol of further aggrandisement of the rich at the expense of the poor. Policymakers should step back from their hand-wringing and feverish vote-lobbying to refocus on the new divide in society: between the haves and have-nots. It is a divide between those with the money, property, or knowledge to allow them to climb the social ladder, and those stuck in their alleys, caged living spaces or low-paid jobs.
More alarmingly, the authorities should note an emerging divide between those who are able to make money out of the mainland's new-found economic prowess, and locals who are unable to benefit. It is a divide between wealthy mainlanders seen pushing up home prices and buying expensive designer products; and locals devoid of cash or the education for well-paid jobs.
It is also a divide driven by the perception that our authorities channel our scarce resources to benefit those from the mainland or with mainland connections. You can hardly blame locals for this perception, as hordes of mainlanders, especially pregnant women, crowd out locals in hospitals and threaten to overstretch our medical services. It is a perception our authorities are well advised to watch, as they scurry to provide more land for private (but subsidised) universities targeting mainland students, while 6,000 matriculants a year are denied publicly funded tertiary places.
As a privileged minority stands ready to profit from the mainland while large numbers remain deprived, would you not be mad? If our authorities cannot turn 'one country, two systems' to the advantage of all, they should brace for more turbulence.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chairwoman of the Savantas Policy Institute