Stuck in the gap

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 November, 2010, 12:00am

Two people said things to me recently that made me wonder if we can ever reverse the widespread public discontent we're now experiencing. One represents some of Hong Kong's top bosses. The other is a big-time boss himself.

They told me different things but, if you put them together, you cannot help but conclude we're stuck as a society. Change is not on the way. The people who can effect change won't do it. And the people who want change can't do it.

We all know the reasons why there is such public discontent - a widening wealth gap, low wages, unaffordable property prices, the power of the tycoons, the undue influence of the business class and despair among ordinary people that an unfair society has robbed them of their dream to improve their lives.

The people want to change all that but they're powerless unless they turn to radical 'people power'. There are no signs they have reached that point yet. But neither are there signs that those with the power to change things understand the need to do it.

Some of our best-known firms belong to the Employers' Federation of Hong Kong which represents the voice of bosses. Duncan Abate is a committee member.

So are bosses like David Li Kwok-po of the Bank of East Asia, Christopher Pratt of Swire Pacific and Michael Chan Yue-kwong of Cafe de Coral.

Abate told me on a radio show that it is not the role of bosses to reduce our growing poverty, but that of government. He described as 'intrusive' the new minimum wage of HK$28 an hour, meaning it's way too high.

He had 'no idea' how to reduce poverty but was categorical that it should not be done through higher wages.

James Tien Pei-chun - a wealthy boss and former head of the business-friendly Liberal Party - told me on a TV show why he thinks people now have this 'hate the rich' sentiment.

He said it is directed mainly at the property tycoons who, in addition to controlling home prices, also control most other things in our daily lives - from mobile phones and electricity to supermarkets and buses. He avoided the word 'monopoly' but the people are, of course, not stupid. They know a handful of tycoons have a virtual stranglehold over their lives.

So, bosses say the business of reducing poverty is none of their business. That could explain why even though Cathay Pacific made a record profit of HK$12.5 billion, it won't trickle down more of this than the 4 to 4.5 per cent pay rise it has offered. Tien says people hate the rich because a handful of tycoons control too much of their lives. But the tycoons haven't given any hint that they want to be less monopolistic so the people will hate them less.

If anything, they behave like they want to be more so. The government's proposed competition law is too weak to break up the monopolistic nature of big business in Hong Kong.

The bosses want the government to be solely responsible for reducing poverty - which could then ease the anti-rich sentiment - but they don't say how it should do it. Generous handouts? Tien has suggested that. But how long can that last? To last indefinitely taxes must go up, but the bosses don't want that either.

The government could build more universities to produce better-skilled people, but that's in the long term. And it could abolish alcohol taxes like it did wine taxes to create more jobs.

But bosses are paying even today's university graduates wages that put them in near-poverty territory. And there is no evidence that profits from the wine tax cuts have trickled down through decent wages.

So there's the message: money will not trickle down no matter how hard you work to make your boss rich. Much of what you make will continue to flow into the pockets of the tycoons through mortgages, phone bills, electricity charges, bus fares and so on. But the government says handouts are not the answer. Feeling trapped?

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster