Urban planning

How disillusioned youth and the politics of envy are eroding Hong Kong’s status as a land of opportunity

Mike Rowse says the lack of hope for the future among young people and the disparagement of the privileged in some political quarters will not offer solutions to Hong Kong’s problems

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 February, 2018, 9:33am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 February, 2018, 8:45pm

When I first arrived in Hong Kong, one of the things that struck me most forcefully was the lack of envy. There was a wide gulf in the material circumstances of the population. Hillside squatter huts existed cheek by jowl with palatial mansions. But when poor people saw a person driving a Rolls-Royce, they didn’t resent it. Rather, they dreamed that if they worked hard and had some luck, then one day they might be well off too or at least their children would have a chance to succeed.

Street life: Hong Kong in the 1950s as seen through the lens of photographer Fan Ho

Perhaps this sentiment was explained by the strong impression that life was tough but this was a city of opportunity. Living in a humble illegal shack or – as I did – in a multi-occupancy flat where bathroom and kitchen were shared, was only temporary: there was always hope that tomorrow would be a better day.

This last factor has gradually gone missing. Too many people believe they have no future, hence the rising age of marriage and a lower propensity to have children. For our students, the past 20 years have chiselled away at the “graduate premium”; the idea that years spent securing a university degree will be more than compensated for by a higher salary later on.

Two major consequences have flowed from this. Our young people have become disillusioned with life in general and with our political situation in particular. And a new negative spirit – what some call the politics of envy – has crept into public discourse.

Our young people have become disillusioned with life in general ... And a new negative spirit – what some call the politics of envy – has crept into public discourse

Thus, we see our university students, the future elite who should be setting an example of good behaviour appropriate to their privileged position, acting on occasion without even elementary good manners. I am not thinking here of Occupy, which I still see as having been a spontaneous outburst of genuine distress at the shameful inadequacy of the government’s political reform package. Rather, I have in mind the intimidation tactics used outside the University of Hong Kong Council chamber last year and the more recent disgraceful episode at Baptist University.

The second phenomenon is illustrated by the nature and tone of the attack on recreational clubs spearheaded by the Civic Party. The spark was the idea floated in the context of addressing the housing situation that we should build flats on the Fanling golf course. The possibility has some attraction, in that the lease is expiring soon and other sites in the area are being developed for residential use.

But as one of the best town planners in Hong Kong, Ian Brownlee, pointed out, those other sites have been the subject of comprehensive planning studies, the results are available and development can now proceed with all due speed. This is not the case with the golf course. Moreover, Hong Kong needs more green spaces and recreation opportunities, not fewer. And as Brownlee pointed out, there is no shortage of land in the New Territories, only a lack of political will to stand up to vested interests and develop it.

But what could have been a serious public debate about priorities has descended into a vitriolic attack on privileged minorities and the scope has widened to include all private sports clubs. Have people forgotten that the Rugby Sevens was spawned by unpaid volunteers at the Hong Kong Football Club? That the Cricket Sixes, which is attracting favourable attention, grew out of the initiative of another club? That we are famous worldwide for the quality of our horse races organised by the Jockey Club? Yes, and that the Hong Kong Open is respected in international golfing circles?

I teed off in my street shoes: Greg Norman recalls 1979 Fanling victory

These events project an image to the world of Hong Kong as an exciting, happening and sophisticated place. This helps not only to attract visitors but also creates an environment which attracts international companies to set up here which creates jobs.

The government has a duty to resist the politics of envy. Provided the clubs are organising world-class events and allowing reasonable access to the wider public, then they should be allowed to continue.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises. [email protected]