The roots of Hong Kong's rage

Regina Ip says Hong Kong people living through the wrenching social and economic changes in recent years may find it easy to blame the mainland influence, but at what price?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 July, 2014, 3:48am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 July, 2014, 3:48am

Anyone who has met diplomats posted to Hong Kong from much more turbulent parts of the world will have noticed how appreciative they are of the safety and security of our city. Famed for their love of freedom, Hong Kong people have established a reputation for staging peaceful public demonstrations. Compared to the mayhem that has torn some parts of the world, Hong Kong has stood out as an oasis of peace. Sadly, that seems poised to change.

Although the threats to Hong Kong's physical security seem insignificant at this stage, an atmosphere of violence has set in and is poisoning the civility and stability of our city. Violence in the form of calls to "occupy Central" from self-proclaimed democracy advocates who want to pressurise Beijing into yielding to their demands. Violence in the form of extremist positions on arrangements for electing the chief executive, taken by student groups who will brook no compromise. Violence in the form of reckless filibustering in the Legislative Council, whatever the cost to Hong Kong's future. Violence in the form of unprecedented attempts by young radicals, some armed with offensive weapons, to storm the Legco building. Violence in the form of hate-filled verbal abuse hurled at mainland visitors unaccustomed to the ways of our sophisticated city.

Also, violence in the form of insults hurled at the chief secretary by graduates of the Academy for Performing Arts at a recent graduation ceremony. By insulting the guest of honour, they debased the ceremony and disgraced themselves.

Many older Hongkongers are asking: what has become of our city and what went wrong?

Many things have indeed gone wrong. First, despite the increase in overall wealth, our wealth gap has widened. Hong Kong has one of the highest Gini coefficients, a statistical measure of income inequality, among developed economies. And so, too, do other free-market economies such as Singapore and the US. This may be due to the fact that when you have free, open markets, the strong get stronger while the weak get weaker.

According to government statistics, Hong Kong's Gini coefficient is not only high but has also been rising over the years - from 0.43 in 1971 to 0.518 in 1996 and 0.537 in 2011. The steady increase is partly the effect of globalisation and partly the progressive narrowing of our economy with the migration of our manufacturing activities across the border. Hong Kong's economy is now 93 per cent service-oriented. This relocation has meant the loss of a wide range of jobs in the manufacturing sector and the skills that go with it.

Hong Kong no longer makes anything, but makes its living largely by providing trading, logistics and tourism services mainly for mainland Chinese clients, and financial and professional services in connection with the city's financial hub. Other than the financial and professional services, many of the services provided by the city are low-end, and by some accounts trending down.

The past decade has also seen a staggering concentration of wealth in the property sector. The overspill of wealth from the mainland caused prices to go through the roof until they were artificially suppressed by the various stamp duties slapped on by the administration. Young people have become increasingly disillusioned as their hopes for acquiring wealth through owning a home diminish. High property prices have crowded out other riskier, more innovative economic activities and turned those without homes against the landed class.

Where education and skills are concerned, in the past few decades, our education authorities have largely succeeded in expanding mass education but at considerable cost to the standards of elite schools, so much so that many have converted themselves into "direct subsidy schools" to acquire greater freedom in setting their curriculum and raising resources.

Parents who want their children to be globally competitive scramble to put them in direct subsidy, international or independent schools, while more and more "practical" subjects, like tourism and hospitality studies, are introduced to cater for students at the low end. The polarisation of knowledge and skills translates into the polarisation of opportunity, another source of discontent to young people with limited scope for upward social mobility.

Adding to all these woes we now have the heated constitutional debate on how to elect the chief executive in 2017. Many Hongkongers oppose any attempt by Beijing to limit the field of candidates to trustworthy patriots. On the face of it, it is a matter of Beijing versus Hong Kong people in allowing the people a "real choice". But, essentially, it is about whether Hong Kong people are willing to support the national goal of safeguarding sovereignty, security and developmental interest, or insist on going the other way.

Void of deep-rooted sectarian or ethnic divides, the political cleavage in Hong Kong has always been about China. In their rebellious moment, some demonstrators might wish to be rid of constraints imposed by the centre. But Hong Kong might well fall to pieces if the centre cannot hold.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party