Deal a fair hand

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 January, 2011, 12:00am

As a new year dawns, Hong Kong faces both internal and external challenges. Internally, the challenges relate to perceived inequities in society and, externally, they have to do with Hong Kong's relationship with Beijing. Customarily, at the end of each year, greeting cards are exchanged wishing the recipient 'A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year' or 'Season's Greetings' for non-Christians. But, regardless of religion, one perennial theme is the hope for prosperity in the coming year.

This is echoed in the traditional greetings over the Lunar New Year, when virtually everyone loudly wishes everyone else gong xi fa cai - literally 'may you become rich' - without any sense of embarrassment. It is, after all, a reflection of Chinese society's traditional poverty and the deeply felt desire to escape its tentacles.

Hence, it is significant that a survey in December by the University of Hong Kong's Public Opinion Programme found that, for the first time, more people wanted fairness in society than prosperity. In a survey of 1,017 people, 27 per cent wanted Hong Kong to be a fair society, 6 percentage points higher than the previous year, while 23 per cent wanted a corruption-free society.

Since the surveys were first launched in 1993, each year, more people had longed for prosperity than anything else. But, this time, only 22 per cent put prosperity first, a drop of 6 percentage points from the previous year.

This suggests many now feel that the main problem in Hong Kong society is not a question or prosperity or poverty but a problem of fairness. That is to say, a handful of wealthy people hold far too great a share of society's riches, while too many others are left impoverished. This perception of inequity is reflected in the frequent allegations of collusion between the government and business, particularly those in property development.

Clearly, many people feel that the rules are not fair and that the cards are stacked in favour of the rich. This is something to which the government must pay heed. Action must be taken before the situation worsens - and the poll numbers show it is worsening.

The government, at long last, seems to be waking up to the fact that property developers have for decades been getting away with presenting model homes to the public that are misleading. Even today, they do not permit potential buyers to measure the space on offer. Official outrage is to be welcomed, but one must wonder if the government was really ignorant for all these years of what was going on beneath their noses.

While fairness may be the most important issue within Hong Kong society, another challenge is the relationship with Beijing, which has been highlighted by the director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Wang Guangya. When asked to comment on the numerous voices in Hong Kong who called for the release of Zhao Lianhai, the tainted-milk activist who was sentenced to 21/2 years in prison, the new director said that under the 'one country, two systems' formula, 'well water should not interfere with river water', meaning that people here should not involve themselves in mainland affairs.

This raises the question of the extent to which the mainland has involved itself in Hong Kong political affairs. While immediately after 1997 Beijing went to some length to maintain at least the appearance of non-interference, it no longer bothers to make such an effort. In fact, the perception now is that decisions are made by the liaison office, which is why demonstrations are increasingly being held there rather than outside the Central Government Offices on Lower Albert Road.

If Wang doesn't want Hong Kong people to involve themselves in mainland affairs, he should keep Beijing out of Hong Kong affairs. Beijing should not involve itself in local elections. It should also stop telling the chief executive who to appoint as principal officials. If Beijing did not meddle in Hong Kong's affairs, it would have a stronger hand when arguing that Hong Kong should not interfere in mainland politics.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator