26 February 2020
Demonstrators hold signs in Hong Kong during a protest on Jan. 1. The territory’s government is facing growing calls for concrete action to soothe public discontent. Photo: Bloomberg
Demonstrators hold signs in Hong Kong during a protest on Jan. 1. The territory’s government is facing growing calls for concrete action to soothe public discontent. Photo: Bloomberg

How govt can alleviate the discontent in society

by Yeung Chi-yuen

More than seven months into the protests that kicked off early last June, some people consider the Hong Kong events as a “resistance movement” while others simply dub them as “riots”. The squabbles over the nature of the social unrest won’t end anytime soon.

If you ask me, both those labels — “resistance”, “riots” — are not truly reflective of what is really going on in the city, because such opposing depictions often arise from the different perceptions and political stance among different people.

That being said, perhaps what we should do is to stay focused, with a cool head, on finding out the causes of the entire current unrest.

According to the findings of a survey conducted by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute between Dec. 13 and 18 last year, under a three-in-one choices method, 41 percent of the respondents said were most concerned about livelihood problems, while 40 percent said they were most concerned about political issues. Only 16 percent cited economic problems as their biggest concern.

So, what exactly are the grievances among the people in relation to the political and social situation?

On the political front, most local citizens, in my view, are looking forward to electing their chief executive through “one person, one vote”, with universal suffrage, because after all, Hong Kong is a highly modernized society and a developed economy.

Unfortunately, ever since a constitutional reform package proposed by the former Leung Chun-ying administration was vetoed by the Legislative Council in 2015, Hong Kong’s democratization process has ground to a complete halt, with no end in sight for the political standstill.

As far as livelihood issues are concerned, the Hong Kong people are getting increasingly dismayed at the widening wealth gap and the sluggish social mobility in recent years.

Meanwhile, homeownership dreams have faded among many young people, given the sky-high property prices.

Worse still, people are getting increasingly anxious and apprehensive about their future as their quality of life and material well-being deteriorate as incomes don’t keep pace with rising living costs.

Given all these issues, there is need for action on multiple fronts. Firstly, the Hong Kong government should consider initiating discussions with Beijing on re-activating the political reforms process, with the ultimate goal set at ensuring direct elections for the chief executive through universal suffrage.

By raising this critical issue with the central authorities again, the SAR administration can at least let the people of Hong Kong know that it is working aggressively on this task, so that the hopes of achieving genuine elections among the citizens can be re-ignited, thereby reducing the grievances in society.

Second, the government should step up efforts at building more public rental housing (PRH) flats in order to meet the citizens’ demand for new homes. And a specific quota of these PRH flats should be given to young people.

The administration shouldn’t rely too heavily on the private property market when it comes to providing housing. It is because under the motive of profit maximization, it is unlikely that the cash-flush and powerful real estate developers would take the initiative and lower home prices.

And finally, the government should further raise the Statutory Minimum Wage (SMW) in order to improve the livelihood of the labor force in the city.

Hong Kong’s SMW currently stands at HK$37.5 per hour, which is low when measured against the local living costs, and also weak compared to the levels of minimum wage adopted by other developed economies.

The sluggish growth in our SMW ever since its enforcement in 2011 probably explains why the issue of working poor in Hong Kong has continued to deepen in recent years.

If the government can address these pressing problems in an effective way, I believe the discontent among the people would gradually subside.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 1

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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