The things we carried

November 15, 2021 09:33
While tens of thousands live in subdivided flats or other similarly undesirable conditions, Hong Kong is  home to some of the most expensive properties in the world. Photo: RTHK/AFP

“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done.” – The Things They Carried.

In a somewhat esoteric yet oddly fitting manner, Tim O’Brien’s seminal text – and the damning passage outlined above – has curious uses and applications beyond the strict context of war. One such context, I’d like to think, is Hong Kong – and the neoliberal logic that has undergirded our city’s economy over the many past decades, which have inadvertently, though by no means unforeseeably, spewed the radical inequalities that have come to characterise this city that we inhabit.

A home – in name – to 7.4 million people; yet it sure doesn’t feel that way, for the thousands living in literal cages, or the tens of thousands struggling to make ends meet in subdivided and subpar housing, or – indeed – the 1.65 million people who, prior to policy intervention, could be classified as living in poverty in 2020. That’s more than one in five Hong Kongers.

In this city of dazzling skyscrapers, glitzy rooftop bars, and ostentatious displays of luxury (look at the Peak! Or, indeed, the opulent West Kowloon!), we have always known that there exists an underbelly – Children of Omelas, so to speak – to the lavishness that some of us take pride in. Hong Kong is as much a “heaven for shoppers” or a tourist’s haven, as it is a site of destitution, abject poverty, and preposterously prevalent suffering in certain quarters.

Officials have emphasised the numbers – when taken through “post-intervention” lenses – are starkly better. “Only” 7.9% of our city lives in poverty – ain’t that an improvement over the 9.2% in 2019? If we throw in the cash handouts, non-cash handouts, and other perks offered by the government over the years, the numbers all work out – it’s improving, isn’t it?

I do not intend to discredit or negate the value and importance of ongoing state initiatives – indeed, it would be reckless, foolish for me to brush over the significant contributions they have made. The trouble, however, is that this is by no means enough. These measures are working, they are there, but they aren’t enough. We haven’t done enough, we haven’t planned enough, and – I dare say – many amongst us, those endowed with relative privilege and wherewithal, do not care enough. Note the first-personal tense here – we’re all collectively guilty.

We, collectively, carry the sins that we have inherited from our predecessors – from those who advanced the view that a laissez-faire approach to the economy means that we ought to dismantle the safety net, so as to prevent “people from getting lazy”. Sure, money and welfare amount to all there is that people care for – it’s not as if they yearned for careers of their own, or the opportunity to make their lives meaningful, am I right? Ah – wait, we can’t quantify human ambition and incentives, so let’s do away with it altogether. There we go.

We, collectively, carry the burdens and costs of policy failures – from the failure to (at least partially) delink our economic growth from land revenue and sales; to the failure to build ample housing (which was, ironically, voted down by a mixture of “anti-government opposition” and pro-business forces); to the absence of diversification in our industrial policy, which has produced a stark bifurcation to the job market. These are all errors, slip-ups, and mistakes that, accumulatively and over the years, add up to substantial slights and devastating consequences. We are bearing the consequences of our past inaction, present ineptitude, and – should we refuse to engage or correct course – future complacency.

Now, some may accuse me of being unjudiciously scathing in my criticisms of the state. Surely, the private sector, the market players, the doyens who have instructively acted in accordance with their natural instincts – are also to blame?

This pushback misses the point. I’m not suggesting here that the state, or private businesses, or the tycoons, must bear moral responsibility for their actions. If anything, I’m advancing a converse thesis – that the responsible agent(s) is… all of us. We’re all complicit. We’re all responsible. We should not be preoccupied with identifying and pinpointing blame, which does very little in resolving persisting injustices. Instead, it’s imperative that we looked to collective solutions that we can all contribute our fair share in carrying forth.

From creating a sustainable ladder of progressive job opportunities for low-skilled labour, to providing tenable healthcare and childcare support to working-class, single mothers, to combating ethnic and gender discrimination (as well as discrimination aimed at migrants from the mainland), there is much that we can do. Now that the Legislative Council has been “reformed” in a way that has essentially eradicated the most obstinate and intransigent of the opposition, there should be no excuses – it’s high time that we all acted, in bringing about long-overdue justice, for those who have no one to speak on their behalf.

We can’t run away from the things we carried. So we may as well try to face them up front – and do the right thing.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review