We need a budget that responds to the angst of HK’s youth

March 03, 2021 08:43
Photo: RTHK

Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po presented his budget last Wednesday, with a particular emphasis upon tackling the economic fallout induced by the ongoing pandemic, as well as restoring consumer and investor confidence in the aftermath of the 2019 civil unrest.

The usual critics – Pan-Democrats and opposition politicians – have characterised it as too little, too late in ameliorating the abject poverty induced by the skyrocketing unemployment rates. The budget arrived at a time with unprecedented scepticism and antipathy towards the state – especially amongst the city’s youth, many of whom were involved in the pro-democracy social movement and civil unrest over the past few years.

To give credit where credit’s due – the budget did allocate sizeable portions to economic stimulus and welfare relief. In balancing the needs for austerity and imminent relief for the poor, the budget was strategically restrained in what could have otherwise been a disastrous curtailing of cash handouts and subsidies to the poor qua austerity measures. The unprecedented loan scheme and tax breaks certainly strike a healthy balance between indulgent welfarism and laissez-faire negligence, whilst equipping the unemployed with the necessary means to seek gainful employment.

Yet Hong Kong needs more than merely short-termist measures. The city’s youth – disillusioned, frazzled, and left with minimal trust in official institutions – wants clearer, innovative solutions to long-standing problems. For starters, there needs to be more progressive, direct action on fronts of Hong Kong-China integration, and the rejuvenation of the city’s flailing cultural industries, of which many youth are a part.

For all the related fanfare, mainland-centered policies advanced by the budget remain heavily inaccessible to the ordinary youth in Hong Kong. Youths find themselves alienated by oft-tooted horns of the ‘Greater Bay Area’ and ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, no less due to the perceived lack of viable opportunities and stable prospects in association with working in the mainland. This can of course attributed to the Sinophobic stereotypes and mistruths espoused by parts of the media, yet we must also hear the voices of these youth, who are rightfully angsty about local job prospects – especially for unskilled or low-skilled labour, and yet reticent towards moving up north. The exorbitant costs of settling into an unfamiliar ecosystem – economic, social, or knowledge – have ruled out the option for many.

The Hong Kong administration can do more – with a deficit that has been well cushioned by the mobilisation of the city’s Future Fund, the government ought to ramp up its efforts in working with conglomerates and start-ups in the region, in nudging them to expand their operations and establish tenable career “ladders” in the Greater Bay Area. Quotas and affirmative action for Hong Kong youth, as well as subsidies and guaranteed placements in firms upon their returns – these are all incentives that the administration ought to promulgate amongst the local business community. This may well run into allegations of market distortion and excessive interference by the state; yet if the government is unwilling to devote even some political capital towards securing better job prospects and smoothening the steep learning curves for its future generations, how could it expect its ‘goodwill’ to be reciprocated at large?

Hong Kong could ill-afford to passively await instructions from Beijing as to how economic integration ought to take place. Our government must step up to its job.

Secondly, it is high time for Hong Kong to revive and support local cultural and recreational industries. Chan should be lauded for his commitment to renovating and upgrading football pitches – yet this is by no means sufficient. Hong Kong’s arts and entertainment sector is dying, not because of a lack of public appetite or demand, but because of the dire state of under-funding and unfit-for-purpose venues. Considering the importance of local culture as both a means of sustenance and a source of identitarian empowerment, the budget ought to have allocated more seed funding to spur grassroots, bottom-up innovation in the arts sector.

The arts sector – if managed properly – is one with relatively low barriers to entry, that remains accessible to young folks from underprivileged backgrounds. There are few better ways to win the hearts and minds of the youth, than to acknowledge, vocally and emphatically, the value and importance of their sub-culture. It is easy to talk about healing and reconciliation, about moving Hong Kong forward. Yet unless the government puts the money where the mouth is, much of such discourse would remain just talk.

At the end of the day, we should acknowledge that Chan’s budget offers a welcome respite from the past months of gloom and doom in the city – yet for the youth that our city has damningly failed, more, much more, must be done.

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Assistant Professor, HKU