Don't reduce our lives to economic numbers

Peter Kammerer laments officials' tendency to see people as a commodity to serve the economy, when it should be the other way around

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 March, 2014, 12:24pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 March, 2014, 12:42am

Numbers are integral to budgets, as are facts, figures and projections to government policies. But there is more to a city or nation than development, job creation, pillar industries and GDP rates. To borrow a phrase popularised in the wake of the global financial crisis in 2007 as Western governments fretted over declining growth, we live in a society, not an economy.

This crystallised in my mind during a dinner conversation with a friend of a friend, a mainland journalist working here for more than a decade. His statistical knowledge of China was impressive; all the facts and figures about growth were at his mental fingertips. Hong Kong contributed about 3 per cent of China's gross domestic product and the figure was fast falling, he pointed out, surmising that without a dramatic change in direction, it would be inconsequential within a decade. The more he regurgitated numbers, the more I was reminded of Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah's budget.

Tsang's message was that substantial financial challenges lie ahead. It fitted neatly with the approach of successive governments of pushing development to drive growth. Put simply, if we don't focus on pillar industries and find new ways to generate income, Hong Kong risks losing out to rivals, Shanghai being the greatest threat. Without such effort, our city will be doomed, is the subtext.

I'm no economist and the bigger a number gets, the more meaningless it is to me. But I do wonder about governments that see growth as the be-all and end-all of a society's future. To do so is to think of people as little more than a commodity, a means of generating revenue and contributing to GDP. A community's needs, desires, aspirations and dreams are relegated to being of secondary importance.

A quote from the Stephen Chow film Shaolin Soccer comes to mind. It goes: "If you live without dreams, you are no different from a salted fish." The comedic genius of the feted actor, director and producer is absent; this is pure philosophy - so much so that a public exam paper mistakenly contended that it was a Chinese proverb. Origins aside, though, it has great meaning for present-day Hong Kong: the government has to give citizens every opportunity to reach their full potential.

South Korea is a good example of what happens when a government puts the economy and big business ahead of the people it is supposed to be serving. Our images of the nation are of the innovation of Samsung, the cool of K-pop, holidays and a thriving tiger economy. But South Koreans are far from happy; divorce, suicide and alcohol consumption levels are high, hours at work and school excessively long and the birth rate among the lowest in the world. Corruption is endemic and chaebol, the mega conglomerates that reach into every corner of life, tell the government what to do.

That is not what we want of Hong Kong, but it's a possibility if people are not put first. Our dreams are obvious: we want to be happy, safe, healthy, well-educated and have fulfilling lives. It is these goals, not hitting economic targets, which our government has to work towards with its budgets, policies and decisions.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post