Mind the gap

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 January, 2010, 12:00am

Premier Wen Jiabao first mentioned our 'deep-rooted conflicts' four years ago, in December 2005, to the chief executive. He repeated his call for better handling of these conflicts two weeks ago during Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's latest official duty visit. Tsang may have been partially correct in understanding that these conflicts stemmed from economic factors, since societal divides are driven as much by political factors as economic ones, especially in hard times.

But, to effectively resolve such conflicts, one must better understand the city's political landscape that is defined by the full spectrum of factors: political, social, historical as well as economic. Throughout human history, people have been divided into 'haves' and 'have-nots' - countless revolutions have been sparked by this. But our government seems none too concerned with history, or is at a loss when it comes to handling Hong Kong's alarmingly wide and growing rich-poor gap. Our Gini coefficient, in which higher scores indicate greater wealth inequality, has risen from 0.476 in 1991 to 0.533 in 2006. By last year, our city was ranked No1 in wealth disparity in the 2009 UN Development Programme.

With almost no natural resources, Hong Kong has succeeded in trade, thanks to its commerce-friendly government. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a government that facilitates business. But ours, which is increasingly seen to favour the private sector at the expense of the rest of the community, has divided society, and the gap is not just between tycoons and the poor; everyone in the middle has their own grievances - on issues such as a minimum wage and competition legislation - and they are pitched against each other, too. Factor into the mix the most deep-rooted conflict - sentiment towards Beijing - and we have a community divided along more than just social and economic lines; the city's party politics are also formed along this fault line.

The relationship with the mainland and the community's emotions are shaped by colonialism, China's past, family histories and personal experiences. Granted, there is not much the government can do to bridge the gap in these respects, but it can - unintentionally - make things worse. The way in which the previous administration attempted to introduce Article 23 national security legislation is a textbook case. This administration's lack of transparency over the cross-border rail link is another. All this feeds mistrust and drives both sides of the Beijing divide further apart. The reason for Wen's fears has been perfectly demonstrated by rail link controversy. Not only do we have people who do not want their homes demolished pitched against those who want them out of the way for development, we have people who believe in the economic promises of the project opposing those who do not think they will see any economic benefits. We also have construction workers who need a job rallying against young protesters who see the project as a product of an undemocratic government - and we even have professionals calling each other unprofessional.

Our 'deep-rooted conflicts' are not just between pro-and anti-establishment factions; we have to divide groups according to their pro- or anti-Beijing sentiments, and then decide whether they are elitist or populist. All our society's divisions are evident in the first paragraph of the 'Post 50s' group's newspaper advert this week. It neatly profiles the group's members by age ('born in or after the 50's'); education ('college days'); career choice ('professionals ... from the engineering, construction, planning, finance and legal sectors'); and, most interestingly, political persuasion ('we took part in the local student movement ... supported the call for direct elections in 1988 ... and [have] thrown our weight behind democratic candidates.').

Just how politically polarised has our community become, and how inadequate is our political system, when people feel they must qualify themselves with their personal and political CVs to assert their opinion? It is time the government made heeding the different concerns of a disintegrating community its top priority.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA