Low wages fly in the face of Hong Kong’s ‘Asia’s World City’ tag

Financial Secretary misses a vital point in his rant on high wages hurting businesses

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 October, 2015, 3:19pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 November, 2015, 4:43pm

In his Chinese-only message posted yesterday, [Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah] wrote that workers such as dish washers might be making a better living these days, earning up to HK$12,000, but that was putting pressure on small to medium enterprises.

SCMP, October 26

John Tsang, as is required of our high-level bureaucrats, regularly refers to Hong Kong as “Asia’s World City”. I have never been sure quite what the term means and I now wonder whether he does.

The closest I can come to it is a London, a Paris or a San Francisco, a town recognised by everyone around the world as standing out from others, not necessarily by size or even some measure of political clout, but in culture and the recognised achievements of its inhabitants.

You expect such a town to be wealthy. World cities do not come poor. It is the first achievement of their inhabitants. But, more than that, you find that a disproportionate number of people you respect for their wit, their knowledge and the things they do, happen to come from such towns.

They are towns to which you want to travel and, when you do, you generally find yourself happy you did for all your experiences there and the people you meet, a whole that far surpasses the sum of its parts. If you had never been to either London or Chengdu, which would be your natural first choice?

That’s why there is a London Ontario in Canada and a London Mpumalanga in South Africa but only one London. That is why there is a Paris Illinois, a Paris Arkansas and 22 other Parises in the United States but only one Paris. That’s why there are hundreds of San Franciscos around the world but only one ever comes to mind. That’s why Chengdu almost never does.

And if I had to pick one quality that is common to these world cities, it is that historically they have had an earlier and greater equality of income, of opportunity and of civil rights than their rivals.

I shall make this even more precise. Dishwashers made HK$12,000 a month in these places long before they could make such money elsewhere.

These dishwashers then put this money into good nutrition and family time, raising and educating emotionally well-balanced children who then went on in disproportionate numbers to become professionals, artists, and craftsmen of renown, in the process creating cities of renown.

It is what happens when large numbers of people can rise above the daily stresses of just feeding, housing and clothing themselves. It has been happening in Hong Kong over the 36 years I have lived here. On a tally of all those many indefinable qualities that go into being a world city, we are ahead of any city I have ever visited across the border, including Beijing.

But we are not entirely there yet. There is a price to pay and we are not always happy to pay it. That price is HK$12,000 a month for dishwashers and for hundreds of thousands of people in other menial trades, in order to bring them to a level where their children will also have a chance of creating a city of renown.

Paying this full price means you may not eat out quite as often as you would like to do or that you may check prices on the menu more often when you do. It means learning to refuel your own car rather than relying on an underpaid 75-year-old cripple to do it for you, as is the case at many fuel stops in this town.

We can evade all these inconveniences easily enough. All we need do is bring in a flood of migrant labour and wages can remain suppressed forever.

But not only would this constitute cheating Hong Kong labourers of their just rewards when they have done real work of creating such a successful economy, it would freeze that economy in a third-world mode.

John Tsang is right in saying that wage rises are a heavy burden on corporate enterprises, and not only small and medium ones. But I wonder if he understands that it is the road we must travel to this vaunted goal of being Asia’s world city.

He would have done better to say nothing on the subject.