Wake up to the crazy rich-poor divide in Hong Kong, and the government’s role in perpetuating the misery

Alice Wu says some of the figures in Hong Kong are mind-boggling. One in five lives below the poverty line, while one in seven is a millionaire and the government has an embarrassment of riches. So why isn’t it doing more for those in need?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 August, 2018, 5:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 August, 2018, 6:14am

It’s rich – crazy rich, really – when Hong Kong’s third-wealthiest man Lui Che-woo, chairman of developer K Wah International Holdings, warns that speculating in property is “just like gambling when Hong Kong home prices surge to the world’s most expensive”. However, he says, it’s “fine to buy a home for self use”.

Well, it’s probably hard to see how bad things are when you’re “comfortable” – as Nick Young, the male protagonist of the hot new film Crazy Rich Asians, calls it. But buying a tiny home at a crazy price is not “fine”.

The Hong Kong Poverty Situation Report for 2016 puts one in five Hongkongers below the poverty line, amid the glitz and glamour of “Asia’s World City”. This is a record high. The government sees the rapidly ageing population and shrinking households as the main drivers of the poverty rate. Of the 1.35 million residents living below the official poverty line, 478,000 are elderly and 200,700 households are “working poor.”

Perhaps, in a city where one in seven people is a millionaire and the government has made a habit of hoarding ludicrous annual surpluses, some have trouble imagining how difficult life can be.

Look no further than our “cardboard grannies” – the elderly, mostly female, scavengers who scrape a living collecting discarded odds and ends in the streets. According to a recent survey, more than 80 per cent of them are aged 60 and above. Their average monthly earnings are HK$716. Worse, they face persecution by Food and Environmental Hygiene Department officers.

Last month, one such woman was fined HK$1,500 for “littering”. And it took a fully fledged public campaign – complete with an online petition – to get her off the hook. Others often have their trolleys confiscated by officers.

So, while we have critics accusing the government of taking ineffective measures to alleviate poverty, there are mean-spirited public servants targeting impoverished old ladies in the streets – creating the abomination of suffering heaped on the desolate.

We have to open our eyes to the reality of the city’s increasing vulnerable population: not only the elderly but also the McRefugees and McSleepers. In five years, there has been a sixfold increase in people sleeping overnight in McDonald’s restaurants.

It’s a disgrace that 24-hour fast-food outlets have effectively become part of Hong Kong’s social welfare system. McRefugees aren’t necessarily jobless and homeless, but they find it hard to make ends meet, what with the costs of air-conditioning, transport and food – not to mention rent.

Then there are more than 200,000 children who are too poor to learn and play with their peers. They can’t afford extracurricular activities or tutoring, and are caught in the poverty trap.

Consider the numbers: property buyers forfeit nearly HK$2 million in deposits. More than 70,000 households have to survive on as little as HK$15 per meal per person, as the city throws out 3,400 tonnes of food a day. Hong Kong has the 4th lowest fertility rate in the world, though it could actually be the lowest, discounting mainland and foreign women giving birth.

The welfare chief wondered whether Hong Kong needed more policies to encourage births. Well, Dr Law Chi-kwong could start by looking at all the money the government has made in land sales.

The government cannot wash its hands of all responsibility for driving up prices, shrinking flats, and perpetuating intergenerational poverty. And yet, it hasn’t summoned the courage to set a minimum flat size, nor the will to build enough public housing. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is crazy poor governance, typical of a crazy rich government that is out of touch, out of ideas, and so poor that all it’s got is money.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA