Book review: Fixing Inequality in Hong Kong – laundry list of city’s challenges, how they’re connected and how to solve them

Richard Wong packs a lot into 300 pages, and inevitably stray into politics as they map out solutions to Hong Kong’s multiple challenges; the data they’ve amassed may be book’s biggest selling point

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 April, 2017, 8:31am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 April, 2017, 9:29am

Fixing Inequality in Hong Kong

by Yue Chim Richard Wong

Hong Kong University Press

3.5/5 stars

Anyone wishing to give an opinion on Hong Kong’s apparently troubled present and possibly fraught future would do well to read Richard Wong’s Fixing Inequality in Hong Kong first.

The value of the book lies not so much in Wong’s conclusions and prescriptions, about which there may be some legitimate differences of opinion, but rather in the way he reaches them: using as much data as he has been able to get his hands on, which in turn informs references to theory, other studies and analysis.

Wong covers a great deal of ground in these 300 pages – enough for an entire advanced economics course – so the book cannot in and of itself be entirely rigorous, but Wong is transparent as to the data sets and techniques, so anyone wishing to run the numbers again can do so.

Fixing Inequality in Hong Kong is a collection of some three dozen linked “essays”, each a compact summary of one aspect of the issue. Wong begins by running through a list of Hong Kong’s very real economic, social, demographic and political challenges. It’s a long list and somewhat depressing, including everything from increasing wealth and income gaps to an ageing population, lagging development of human capital and a fragmented public policy agenda.

One of the main takeaways of the book is that, for better or worse, the problems are linked: housing policy affects education, education affects human capital, human capital affects income distribution, all of which will affect demand for housing, and so on. So while each issue must be looked at individually, a policy solution for one will tend to affect others.

When issues are interlocked in this way, it can be hard if not impossible to identify which is central, but Wong nevertheless considers the “most important challenge” to be population. Hong Kong’s population problem is not so much the total number of people, but the demographics: the population is ageing rapidly.

He also draws attention to what he considers to be insufficient regard here for the development of human capital. He compares Hong Kong unfavourably to Singapore, which he says (almost certainly this will be controversial) has better immigration and education (and, for that matter, housing) policies. The numbers, as numbers, would seem to bear him out.

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Wong also spends a lot of pages on definitions or, rather, metrics. “Inequality” is not the same as “poverty”, he usefully points out, and discusses difficulties in the measurements of both. The policy – and political implications – are considerable, of course: one must first agree about what it is that needs to be fixed before one can go about fixing it. One of the more straightforward examples is whether public housing should be included in income for poverty-line calculations and if so how it should be valued. He also calculates that current poverty line measurements counter-intuitively overestimate the number of poor households among the elderly.

Wong does his best to divest himself of political baggage, but it is not entirely possible, for politics is the necessary vehicle for implementing most of the solutions. It is sometimes said that the facts have a liberal bias; practical policy solutions seem to swing the pendulum back a bit. Wong, it seems, illustrates both. Some of the conclusions – for example, that because it will decrease the time spent with their children, “getting more women to join the labour force may in effect worsen intergenerational mobility for low-income families” and that the minimum wage is “an ineffective solution” – will leave progressives uncomfortable.

It would be nice to say that the book is both clear – which it admirably is, most of time – and easy to comprehend, which unfortunately it is not always. The latter, however, is a reflection of the complexity of the subject; despite the mental effort required, readers should be grateful that Wong hasn’t skimped on the rigour. (But the book could have benefited from an index.)

These are complex, difficult and controversial issues. No review can do justice to a book this rich in ideas and content. In Fixing Inequality in Hong Kong, Wong has set a standard for public discussion which one can only hope that others on all sides of this multifaceted issue will see fit to emulate.

Asian Review of Books