Recently seen in a corner of the meat section at a wet market in one of Kwun Tong’s less prosperous neighbourhoods: a pair of folding tables piled with gleaming, cheap bits of pig. This is where you come if you really find it hard to get by. The items on offer, I am reasonably sure, are (L-R, top to bottom): snouts, ears, hearts, lungs, upper and lower intestines, liver, tongue, trotters, kidney and tripe. For contrast, we go to Oliver’s deli in Central, where we find caviar available at around 1,000 times the price by weight (roughly – assuming the pig parts are priced per catty and the caviar can is 100 grams).
One-time government advisor Leo Goodstadt recently said of Hong Kong’s former Chief Executive: “Donald Tsang hates poor people.” Perhaps “…worships property tycoons,” would have been a less inflammatory way of saying it. Most observers agree that land, other economic and immigration policies, plus global trends, have combined over the last 15 years or so to give Hong Kong a yawning wealth gap. The CY Leung administration at least shows a willingness to recognize the problem. After months of discussion, a commission decided to draw a poverty line at 50% of median income, which is how they do it in most places. This leaves a fifth of the population officially poor, and the other four-fifths of us tut-tutting about how bad it is. Except the New People’s Party lawmaker Michael Tien, who points out that a lot of these people get public housing at a tiny fraction of market rent, which frees up a big chunk of their income. By his calculation, this reduces the truly poor from 1.3mn to more like 400,000.
He accuses the government of political correctness – including the quasi/semi-poor among the ranks of the dirt poor in order to avoid being accused of heartlessness. He may be right. But there’s another possible explanation. Chief Secretary Carrie Lam says handouts are not the answer because they are unsustainable from a fiscal point of view. But what if you aim cash assistance only at Michael Tien’s really poor 400,000? Recurrent government expenditure for 2013-14 is HK$300 billion, of which let’s say half/quarter must be civil servants’ salaries, which are seriously out of balance with the private sector. Trim their pay bill by 10%/20%, and you get enough, by my rough calculations, to put each of the 400,000 dirt poor on at least a HK$3,000-a-month income supplement. I’m not saying that would be good policy – just feasible at no extra cost to the taxpayer.
It would surely help to know why this poverty exists in the first place. Some must be due to the globalization/hollowing-out phenomenon that has suppressed middle-class incomes in the developed world for several decades. Some must be the impact of excruciating rents on poor non-property owners, as exemplified in per-foot rental costs in tiny subdivided apartments. This is largely due to government policy, notably Donald Tsang’s perverse decisions in 2005-2010 to – in effect – push housing prices up as much as possible.
It is politically incorrect and not necessarily good taste to mention the Mainland impact in all this. The influx of Mainland shoppers has pushed rental costs up, reducing opportunities for local entrepreneurs. The arrival of Mainland property buyers has pushed home prices up, ultimately reducing disposable income for locals who must pay more for housing. As median incomes show, retailers’ revenue from Mainland shoppers goes straight out of the economy without trickling down much, so this all adds up to less wealth for Hongkongers, all else being equal.
Treading on ever-more sensitive ground, there’s the arrival of 55,000 new residents a year from the Mainland, inevitably adding to the demand for living space, and adding either to the rise in rents, or directly to the actual number of people in poverty. As the responses to Green Sense’s recent protest show, bureaucrats cannot countenance a clampdown because the politics are nightmarish, while economists in ivory towers see disadvantages. At the same time, local mothers are up arms again: “I had to compete with Mainlanders for a hospital bed. Then it was milk powder. Now its [kindergarten] places.”
Should we treat Mainlanders (as visitors or migrants) equally to other nationalities on principled grounds of basic fairness and decency, or should we be allowed to implement temporary discriminatory quotas and moratoria against them out of pragmatism? This goes beyond just the poverty issue, but it’s a major part of it. Most of the rest of the poor are a cohort of uneducated elderly, who will exit our demographics in due course; the Mainlanders account for much of the ongoing and future changes in our population profile – so whether they increase or reduce overall poverty in the long run is important.
But no-one’s going to talk about that. No-one even knows what’s actually causing the poverty. They can’t even decide whether it’s 1.3 million or 400,000. This suggests those pig guts will probably be on sale for some time to come.