The Hon Sophie Leung GBS JP, the 64-year-old but exquisitely airbrushed representative of the textiles industry in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, generously shares her thoughts on the issue of social mobility:
I am saying all this today to the youngsters of Hong Kong … to move upward, they should take the first step on their own and cannot wait forever for someone else to lift them upwards … It’s up to whether you are willing to work hard on your own … learn to be enthusiastic and optimistic, follow your hearts, fill your hearts with positive thinking. Learn to hold on to opportunity, and live happily and in harmony with the society!
As a result of filling her own heart with positive thinking at an early age, Leung found herself with a father who owned a clothing factory. This sector was, shall we say, stitched up by a group of mainly Shanghainese industrialists who arrived in Hong Kong after the communist revolution in China.
Partly as a reward for not being Cantonese (a rather undependable bunch, old chap), the British colonial authorities awarded these people the Big Lychee’s textiles quotas. These entitled their holders to a given amount of low- or non-tariff access to American and European markets under agreements negotiated to cap imports of cheap apparel into rich countries. These immensely valuable licences were handed out free of charge to the existing main players, rather than auctioned. It was estimated that in the mid-1970s some 15-25% of the value of textiles exports was pure windfall profits for these lucky firms.
The families of Chief Secretary Henry Tang and tycoon-politicians James and Michael Tien made their fortunes this way (all are connected with the Liberal Party, though Sophie left to co-found the crypto-reactionary Economic Synergy group). Like the heirs to today’s property giants, these people never encountered any business success other than the sort handed over on a plate. Competition, level playing fields and the creation of value through innovation are as alien to them as the fact that non-middle-class people who grow up in public housing (even if they gain degree-level qualifications) and/or were born from 1976-1989 are statistically less likely than average to become middle class.
Although it has been declining since the days when leaving a Tang or Tien knitwear sweatshop to sell noodles on the street was a step up, social mobility is no worse in Hong Kong than in many other societies. The real problem is inequality.
As Executive Council member CY Leung never tires of pointing out in his hunger for the post of Chief Executive, real per-capita GDP in Hong Kong grew by 34% from 1997-2006, yet pay for workers on HK$5,000-7,200 went up by less than 4%.* Social mobility and inequality are not strictly the same thing, so it is hard to say whether Sophie’s remedies are applicable. But in her Legco motion last week (Item 17: Adding impetus for promoting upward social mobility) she seems to take a fairly holistic approach to addressing social ills in general. “Promote in … various sectors,” she urges, “the development of a ‘from the heart’ attitude of doing things.” Policymakers around the world kick themselves for not thinking of that first. So maybe those people on HK$5,000 a month should try it. Learn to hold on to opportunity, and live happily and in harmony with the society – or be poor. It’s up to them.
* Or actually declined 12% if they worked in… textiles!