Christine Fang Meng-sang, the woman who refuses to accept poverty

Christine Fang may be leaving her job at the helm of the Hong Kong Council of Social Services but she can't leave behind her commitment to fighting social injustice

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 July, 2013, 4:42am

It's about getting back to the basics for Christine Fang Meng-sang, the outgoing head of the much-respected Council of Social Service.

Together with quitting the council, she is also stepping down from all public posts.

But Fang, 55, did not seem like a woman ready to retire when she bounded into the meeting room for an interview with the South China Morning Post, full of indignation over the living conditions of cubicle flat dwellers reported in the Post the day before.

"This is unbelievable," she said. "When I first started [in the field,] we had these terrible housing conditions. I can't believe that 30 years later, some are still in the same difficult situation."

Known as a defender of the poor and a strong believer in empowering the people and eradicating poverty, Fang said the provision of welfare should be all about the necessity of human well-being and not about pity. After graduating with a degree in social work from the University of Hong Kong, Fang worked at the temporary housing area in Pak Tin for five years, doing co-ordination and community work.

At the time, the government could not build enough housing for everyone, and had to resort to temporary shelters which looked like pigsties, she said.

In Hong Kong, Fang said, public housing has always been a means of redistributing the society's resources to those in need.

The halt in building public housing in the past decade had made the situation even more desperate. Retirement protection and protecting deprived groups were two other major issues the government must deal with, she said.

Fang has spent 12 years as chief executive of the council, after a stint at Red Cross International. The council is an umbrella group of more than 400 NGOs which provide 90 per cent of social services in the city. It is a platform where the government, NGOs and the business sector interact and co-operate.

Fang's decision to leave at the end of the year came as a surprise to some, but she said she had been thinking about it for a while.

Her heart was still with the underprivileged and on issues of injustice, she said, but she hoped to serve in a different capacity, with more international and frontline work.

"I hope to return to the frontline, where I may be able to do more good at this stage," she said.

"I've always loved working with people, so I hope to be able to interact with the people in need. Perhaps this way, I can come up with more ideas to solve the problems [of poverty]."

Fang's husband retires this year, and this prompted her decision to quit the council, believing it was a good time to follow suit.

The job meant she worked closely with the government, an experience that gave her insight into its shortcomings. She said the government had to do two things: open up and think in the long term.

Fang warned that the government must "not lose touch with the people" and must consult with society.

"The government needs to engage the people; don't do everything behind closed doors. You need to be working with the civil society," she said, noting that both the Commission on Poverty and the Long-term Housing Steering Committee were closed-door groups.

"It's obvious that the trust is not there," she said. "Don't lose touch, so you don't lose the trust."

Fang said the problems of Hong Kong's ageing population and poverty needed real policies, not just a patchwork job over existing holes in the system.

"Retirement protection plans are not easy to form as there are many different voices out there," she said. "But the government has to take the lead in sparking discussion and civil society engagement. So far, there is a lack of informed deliberations and solutions."

Current programmes - like the HK$2,200 old-age allowance to eligible elderly, which was rolled out in April - are all temporary measures, she said.

And time is running out. With most of the baby-boomer generation reaching retirement in the next 10 years, vital time was being lost each day, said Fang.

Ultimately, she said, there has to be a change in mentality towards welfare. "Welfare is not just for the poor. It is a necessary social infrastructure to provide necessary support to people of all ages," she said.

Only by appreciating this could Hong Kong hope to plan longer-term goals and get rid of the stigma that comes with receiving government welfare, she said.

Fang said the council would carry on without her - it had been co-ordinating the city's welfare work since the 1940s.

She is looking forward to her next round in the fight against poverty and social inequality.

"I still have 10 years of active work life, so what would I want to do with it?" said Fang.

"I still have a lot I'd like to do."


A Working Life

1980: Graduated from Hong Kong University with a degree in Social Work

1989: Joined the Hong Kong Red Cross

1993: Appointed Secretary General of the Hong Kong Red Cross (last position held at the Hong Kong Red Cross)

2001 until present: Chief executive of the Council for Social Service

2004: Appointed a Justice of Peace

2009: Awarded a Bronze Bauhinia Star

Other roles: Independent non-executive director of MTR Corp. A member of boards, including the Housing Authority, the Independent Police Complaints Council, the Steering Committee on Population Policy, and the Lump Sum Grant Steering Committee