Hong Kong’s leaders should tell its youth that the future lies in embracing the mainland
Regina Ip says the frustration of Hong Kong’s youth is easy to understand – they face harder conditions than their parents did. The answer, though, is to embrace connectivity with the mainland, rather than to resent mainlanders for their success
There is a youth dimension to every major policy issue dogging the government, be it land, housing, education, the economy, development and, most sensitive, Hongkongers’ relationship with mainland China.
Granted, not all young people are as disgruntled as those who caused havoc on the streets during Occupy Central or the 2016 Mong Kok riot. A minority with the benefit of a superior education have no problem in the globalised workplace. The same cannot be said of those from average or lower-income backgrounds. Other than top graduates from business, finance, medical and law schools, most fresh graduates make between HK$14,000 and HK$15,000 per month, not much higher than starting wages for graduates 20 years ago.
Young people cannot ask themselves, “Are you better off than you were 20 years ago?” But they know their parents had it better, 20 years ago, than they do today. Their parents either moved into secure, subsidised public housing or, after working 20 years, bought decent middle-class homes today’s average youth cannot dream of owning even after working their hearts out for more than 50 years. That’s partly why some have become nostalgic for the colonial days, while others toy with relocating to Taiwan.
Not surprisingly, in the wake of the influx of nouveau riche mainland Chinese visitors, a few, including some candidates in the current Legislative Council by-elections, have started to consider mainlanders “locusts” depleting Hongkongers’ resources.
These are not problems piecemeal palliatives from the government can solve. The fact is the world has changed radically since the baby boomers managed to build a fortune through “blood, toil, tears and sweat”. In today’s winner-take-all economy, those with capital, knowledge or technology win big, while those without remain stuck at the bottom, with little hope of a bigger piece of the pie.
The economic disparity is aggravated by the renaissance of China after four decades of sweat and toil on a much grander scale. While Hong Kong still leads the nation in international convergence, rule of law and sophistication of its financial and professional services, many Chinese cities have overtaken Hong Kong in the speed and quality of growth as well as innovation and use of technology. As mainland China’s influence grows, Hong Kong’s well-being is increasingly dependent on the mainland’s economic fortune and goodwill.
It is high time our leaders tell the people the truth about the state of our city – as the joss sticks drawn at the Che Kung Temple on the third day of the Lunar New Year did – “Hong Kong, you have good foundations, but you are resting on your laurels. Your land is so expensive that one inch of soil is worth one inch of gold. You cannot win without toiling, and you cannot cross the sea without getting wet”. It’s no good blaming mainlanders for stealing our lunch, or sulking over the reversal of fortune. Our leaders need to tell the people to come to grips with the new reality and embrace new opportunities.
Today’s young people need to adjust to a new competitive environment, just as their parents did when Hong Kong rose from post-war devastation. Hong Kong’s open economy means that it cannot be insulated from competition from the mainland, even in areas where Hong Kong excels.
To close the achievement gap, the government must act to cure the woes besetting our educating system – the blind pursuit of quantitative expansion at the expense of quality, the curriculum changes which have encouraged loose thinking and mediocrity, and the neglect of cultivation of basic civic values of mutual respect, courtesy and tolerance. While it is necessary to reduce unnecessary pressures bred by excessive testing, our leaders need to reiterate the importance of raising the bar in everything we do.
Hong Kong also needs to own up to the reality that scale matters, and connectivity with the mainland matters. Our forebears were wise enough to embrace free trade so that we can leverage the world markets. While Hong Kong continues to benefit from trade with the rest of the world, there is no denying that the biggest market at its doorstep is that of mainland China.
Access to mainland China’s markets is governed by free trade arrangements permissible under World Trade Organisation rules (formally dubbed Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement). And with Hong Kong being part of China, Beijing is ever willing to extend its help.
Physical connectivity with the mainland will soon be enhanced by the commissioning of new infrastructure linking Hong Kong with the mainland – the high-speed rail going north, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge going west, and the Liantang/Heung Yuen Wai control point going east.
Greater economic integration of the Pearl River Delta is being rebooted under the new rubric of “Greater Bay Area development”. Market access, and ease of movement of goods, people, liquidity and data will be a perpetual struggle in this area encompassing thee different jurisdictions, customs territories and travel areas. But the tide cannot be turned back.
The hardest part is the liberation of hearts and minds to embrace the new opportunities. Connecting hearts and minds would be harder than building infrastructure, but that should be our unmistakable priority.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a lawmaker and chairwoman of the New People’s Party