Give people a fair chance to be part of the Hong Kong success story again

Cheah Cheng Hye says social friction in Hong Kong can be traced to the erosion of one of our core values: equal opportunities for all. That needs to change, so ordinary people again have a stake in the city's success

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 June, 2014, 5:57pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 June, 2014, 4:54am

One of the biggest problems we face today is that a large and growing number of Hong Kong people no longer feel they have a stake in the success of Hong Kong. This is contributing hugely to social unrest and a spirit of defeat in our community. Clearly, we now have a part of Hong Kong that dislikes authority, doesn't welcome too much economic development, and has a tendency to engage in actions that could bring self-injury, such as the Occupy Central protest movement.

Fixing the problem requires a lot of "kung fu", and here's a way to start. We have to recognise that the level playing field - a bedrock principle of Hong Kong under colonial rule - no longer works very well. If you put a small guy in a room with a big guy, and they fight, the small guy isn't going to win. In today's Hong Kong, dominated by big business, multinationals and cartel-like situations, the small guy has little chance of winning. The joke is that many of Hong Kong's young people will grow up to become burger flippers and salespeople in shopping malls.

Consider these points:

Fist, in a report compiled by The Economist this year, Hong Kong, together with Russia and Malaysia, ranked as the worst examples on a global "crony capitalism" index, meaning we live in an economy dominated by cartel-type arrangements, "big brother" multinationals and privileged local owners (think of such sectors in Hong Kong as property development, financial services, transport and supermarkets).

Second, Hong Kong's rich-poor gap is among the world's widest - ranked No 12 in a survey covering 141 economies in the CIA's World Factbook (the 11 communities scoring worse than Hong Kong are all African or South American).

Hong Kong has to have a new beginning, with an action plan to redistribute the opportunities so that ordinary people can become competitive and make a success of themselves. If opportunities are not redistributed, then wealth will have to be redistributed through an emerging culture of entitlement and socialism, a path that will eventually destroy stability and prosperity for all.

This action plan may include the following:

  • State clearly who we are trying to help, and put their interests first. It is not easy running Hong Kong, with the pervasive, lingering influence of 150 years of Western colonial rule and its current status as a special administrative region of China.

    Unlike Singapore, Hong Kong cannot become an independent country, which is why comparing these two cities is valid only up to a point. Still, Singapore has shown that it is critical to define who are the citizens ("Hong Kong SAR passport holders" in the case of Hong Kong), and focus the political mandate on serving these people first. Sometimes, it seems the power elite in Hong Kong are themselves confused as to whether the place exists to serve indigenous people, foreigners, mainland Chinese interests or all of the above at the same time. If we don't even know who to prioritise, the plan is a non-starter. And, of course, our actions should still be in accord with the Basic Law, and shouldn't conflict with international conventions either.

  • Get serious about fighting monopolies and cartel-type arrangements. This should include a critical review of the auction system through which the government itself releases land for development. This system is notorious for requiring a large amount of capital upfront, so that only a handful of big property companies can afford to participate in the auctions.

  • Allocate significant resources to assist ordinary people in Hong Kong to become competitive. The idea is to open the door for ordinary people to enjoy a fair chance of success when they get onto the field. We can take note of numerous examples of successful affirmative action programmes from all over the world, including mainland China, Europe and the United States.

    Obviously, supporting education plays a key role. This can include being a lot more proactive and generous in helping our young to obtain quality education, up to and including college. Also, vocational training to teach crafts and skills should be promoted as not everybody is suited for a liberal arts education.

  • Give a big helping hand to small businessman and entrepreneurs. Promising local brands should be nurtured, and we should facilitate a flow of seed capital to promising start-ups and technology projects. The mindset in the government and the civil service has to change, to encourage a proactive, hands-on approach. And of course, the right kind of foreign talent and investment should remain highly welcome, as that can help Hong Kong people and companies improve their ability to compete.

  • Create and support programmes to boost local talent and enterprise in culture, performing arts and sporting activities in Hong Kong. Developing "soft power" is well suited to Hong Kong, which already has a rich heritage in producing movies, publishing and other fields, and can draw on intellectual capital and cultural insights from both East and West.

The overall vision is to bring about an opportunities-driven society, so that every Hongkonger feels that he or she is participating in the advancement of the community. The political and economic culture must be made inclusive, not exclusive.

Of course, we cannot expect any solution, including this one, to be a "magic bullet" that can cure all our ills today. Hong Kong politics is going to need a lot of fixing, because it has somehow evolved into a system of "freedom without responsibility". There are people and parties now who can say and do irresponsible things as they wish because they know they will not need to be responsible for the consequences.

A discussion on this topic is outside the scope of this article. But, clearly, we can make a good start on overcoming our current difficulties by reforming systems and procedures to give the ordinary Hong Kong family a fair chance to participate in the story of Hong Kong's success and prosperity.

We need to restore the Hong Kong dream enjoyed by earlier generations of Hongkongers. To do this, we need to introduce new management principles.

Cheah Cheng Hye, a fund manager and former journalist, is chairman of Value Partners Group Ltd, an asset management firm listed in Hong Kong