Wealth redistribution is a topic that HK cannot afford to ignore

December 18, 2018 12:22
A file photo shows a 67-year-old cardboard collector pushing her trolley along a road on her way to a recycling depot in Kwai Fong. Hong Kong is the world capital for billionaires as well as home to a million-strong army of poor people. Photo: AFP

A bizarre incident took place in Hong Kong last Saturday. Someone had hurled tens of hundreds of HK$100 dollar bills from the rooftop of a residential building in Sham Shui Po, triggering a stampede among pedestrians on the street to grab the raining cash.

Later, a 24-year-old man named Wong Ching-kit, who is also known as the “Coin Young Master”, was arrested by the police on a charge of causing “disorder in public place”. 

In the early hours of Tuesday, Wong had been released on bail pending further enquiries. He is required to report back to the police in late January next year, media reports said.

While the police is still probing the possible motives behind his act, it remains to be seen whether the action of Wong, who had claimed to be staging the event in an attempt to “give to the poor” after taking from the rich, would resonate with the public.

If the majority of the public feels sympathetic towards this modern-day Robin Hood despite his seemingly crazy act, we should take such popular sentiment very seriously, as it may be an indication that public grievances against the rapidly widening wealth gap in the city are boiling over.

So how serious is the issue of wealth inequality in Hong Kong? Well, apart from the city’s continuously high ranking in the global Gini coefficient index, a report published by our government earlier also shows that there has been a large number of poor population in the city.

According to the findings of the report, the size of the poor population hit nearly 1.38 million in 2017 before policy intervention, with the poverty rate standing at a nine-year high of over 20 percent, which means one in every five Hongkongers was living in poverty last year.

Even after recurrent cash policy intervention was taken into account, the number of poor people in the city still remained at over 1 million.

As far as Hong Kong's working poor are concerned, their numbers stood at over 700,000 last year, accounting for one-sixth of the city's total working population (i.e. 3.8 million).

Ironically, while there are a lot of poor and underprivileged people in Hong Kong, the city also has the highest proportion of billionaires around the world.

Wealth X, a global wealth intelligence and market research institution, published its annual World Ultra Wealth Report in September, which showed that Hong Kong has a population of some 10,000 super rich people with a net worth of at least US$30 million (around HK$235 million) in 2017, and was ranked world number 1 in this regard, surpassing New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles and Paris.

As we can see, Hong Kong is both the world capital for billionaires and home to a million-strong army of poor people. And it doesn’t take an expert to observe that such a huge wealth inequality is a perfect recipe for social unrest.

Just look at the “yellow vest” movement triggered by fuel tax hikes that has swept across France in recent weeks, and which eventually brought French President Emmanuel Macron to his knees and forced him to apologize, and one can tell how public grievances against the disparity between the rich and the poor, if left unaddressed, can easily turn an entire country upside down within a matter of days.

Now let’s get back to the money-throwing saga in Sham Shui Po.

While it is hard to refute that the suspect, if he is proven to have perpetrated the episode, has disrupted public order, there is also a suspicion that the whole drama could have been intended by him as a publicity stunt to generate buzz for his cryptocurrency business.

Nevertheless, whatever his true motives might be, there is one particular thing we need to pay close attention to, which is, the general public reaction to his act.

If members of the public mostly see it as just another crazy stunt by a crazy man and agree that the case should be handled in accordance with the standard legal procedures, then it would well be an indication that the people of Hong Kong still agree on the need for rule of law.

However, if a lot of people are buying into the notion of “robbing the rich and giving to the poor”, then it could be an alarming signal that public resentment at the deteriorating disparity between the rich and the poor in the city is about to reach a tipping point.

The question of wealth redistribution, as a matter of fact, is a serious topic which any international city cannot afford to ignore.

Given the situation, Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po should perhaps give the issue some serious thought during the public consultation exercise for his upcoming Budget.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 17

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal