Hong Kong's outdated mindset holding back social progress

Peter Kammerer regrets the lack of political will and outdated mindsets holding back Hong Kong from being a truly progressive society

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 April, 2014, 8:34pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 April, 2014, 2:10am

Trips back to the rural Australian community I grew up in are increasingly eye-opening. The deep conservatism that was all around during my childhood and youth is being replaced by a surprising liberal-mindedness.

A bank in the middle of town has become a strip club, in a back street a few blocks from the home in which I was raised is a legal brothel, and being caught by police with a minimal amount of marijuana brings a small fine rather than a prison term and criminal record. There are those who see the changes as progress, others - my mother among them - as moral decline, and some perceive them as inevitable shifts in an evolving world.

I'm not comfortable with all that has changed. Swearing on television takes some getting used to, shirtless men on city streets seems just too casual, and restaurant meal portions that are too big speak nothing but "obesity".

There can obviously only be praise for the fair treatment of minorities, though; few countries are as tolerant of gays, lesbians and transgender people. Australia also ensures its citizens have the barest basics - breathable air, clean water and safe food - things many Asian governments, Hong Kong and mainland China included, seem to forget about in their drive for economic growth.

Those were immediately missed on returning to Hong Kong earlier this month after a brief visit. The bronchial cough I had got rid of was back within hours, as were eye irritations. Food was noticeably less fresh and tasty.

No more clean water from drinking fountains in public places, cheery greetings from shop assistants and long chats with friendly taxi drivers (one had got so deep into a conversation that when we got to my destination, he took his vehicle out of service and invited me to a nearby coffee shop where he not only paid the bill, but also waived the fare).

But Hong Kong cannot be compared to a town of 160,000 people; big city living has its drawbacks as well as advantages. What is especially noticeable for me, though, is that while the place I spent the first 22 years of my life has moved forward socially, the one I now call home appears little changed. Working hours are for most people still long and unregulated, minority groups continue to be given short shrift and legal protections that should be essentials are non-existent, watered down or poorly enforced.

Conservatism is not bad - but there is something wrong when it prevents a community from being healthy of mind and body.

Try to find an openly gay character on Hong Kong television. How can food that is obviously unfit for human consumption be permitted to remain for even a second on supermarket shelves?

Why should the profits of public transport companies be allowed to get in the way of having their polluting vehicles off the streets? How is it tolerable that the head of an organisation dedicated to helping the downtrodden of society be criticised, as has happened with Equal Opportunities Commission chief York Chow Yat-ngok over his support of transgender causes?

The fact Hong Kong is a Chinese society has nothing to do with the lack of social progress; forward-looking Taiwan proves that. At fault is a government that is unwilling to change its outdated ways or show genuine leadership.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post