In the larger scheme of things, my leaving the Liberal Party is little more than a tempest in a teacup. But this unseemly and reluctant public display of party disunity brings out a bigger issue: how can any political party with a narrow base of functional constituencies still remain politically relevant to the man in the street?
As Hong Kong guides the gradual democratisation of functional constituencies, the mood of the public has changed. It is much less tolerant of a lopsided defence of pure business interests. This mood change has also been intensified by perceptions of unfair practices by big business. It is not so much feelings of 'hate the rich' as 'hate the unfair'. This growing undercurrent of anti-business sentiment is made worse by the widening gap between the haves and have-nots. Hong Kong's Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, is one of the highest among modern societies.
Even women from developing countries who work as maids here have realistic dreams of owning their own home and business when they return to their native land, riding on the disparities of income, currency values and cost of living between their place of origin and place of temporary employment. The working poor in Hong Kong, by contrast, are condemned to an eternity of poverty.
I will never forget a conversation I had with a voter during the 2008 Legislative Council election. She told me that she and her husband toiled for 11 hours a day, six days a week, earning a combined income of HK$14,000. Rent ate up HK$7,000. There was hardly enough left for basic necessities, never mind money to give their children a good education. They had become stuck on the never-ending treadmill of the daily grind. It is a life of despair, helplessness and guilt as parents.
I asked her why they didn't just walk away from their menial jobs and get themselves on welfare rolls and thereby qualify for public housing. She replied emphatically: 'I believe in self-reliance.' Government handouts and dependency on charity do not, therefore, offer a root-and-branch solution to chronic poverty. The HK$10 billion fund for the poor will work only if it helps them to help themselves, for the vast majority of the working poor are fiercely independent people.
Hong Kong went through long periods of general poverty in the 1950s, 60s and even the 70s. But the difference between now and those simpler days is that there was always hope of better days if one worked hard and thought smart. Those days now seem to be gone forever. The cost of doing business is simply too high, particularly for small-scale start-ups, due to the high rents. I know only too well, for example, the greedy demands of landlords who want the highest return for their properties.
Despite all the bright people in government, not a dent has been made in our fight against chronic impoverishment. This is, I believe, because the administration has failed to broaden our economic base; we are still overly dependent on finance and property. Both sectors, though generating high-paying jobs, are not generating enough of them. It is a telling indictment of government inaction and inability to diversify our economy when university graduates this year are earning on average slightly less than graduates 10 years ago. There are simply not enough alternative industries creating high-value-added jobs for young people.
The second contributing factor to endemic poverty is the fact that not enough employers empathise with their employees. While maximising their profits within the limits of the law, many are unwilling to do anything that is above and beyond the legal requirement, despite reaping huge profits.
I believe equitable treatment by employers is another key solution to the problem of the working poor. I am not advocating socialism. I am merely advocating reasonable hours and fair pay for honest work. The outpouring of public anger in the Cafe de Coral saga is emblematic of the shortcomings of big business that cares only about its immediate bottom line.
The art of politics is compromise. The Cafe de Coral incident was what triggered my split from the Liberal Party. When the dispute was splashed across newspapers, one of the party's functional constituency legislators automatically chose to take the side of the proprietor, calling his action 'understandable' and 'inevitable', thereby alienating the public. The party's former chairman took the wiser course of behind-the-scenes quiet diplomacy to get the company to reverse course, thereby averting an explosive crisis.
It goes to show that functional constituency politics need not be ugly or unseemly in the public's eyes, if it can strike a balance between sectoral interests and the larger interests of the community. With more than a million Hongkongers subsisting below the poverty line, the party that exists only to advance the interests of a smaller circle of blessed business owners is destined to become electorally challenged.
If you stray far from the people, you will be disowned by the people. It is the physics of politics. It is also the mathematics of politics. The trick is to be business-biased while being people-based.
Michael Tien Puk-sun is a Hong Kong deputy to the National People's Congress and chairman of G2000 garment retailer