No wonder Hongkongers are frustrated when the system is so unequal, unaffordable and uncaring

South China Morning Post Dipublikasikan 13.09, 17/09/2019
No wonder Hongkongers are frustrated when the system is so unequal, unaffordable and uncaring

Hong Kong is a cautionary tale of globalisation gone wrong. Distrust of government and other institutions of authority has enabled the rise of populism and tribal politics.

Hong Kong consistently tops the charts for economic freedom, ease of doing business, educational attainment, life expectancy and economic connectivity. Hong Kong also receives dubious accolades as one of the most unhappy, stressed, unaffordable and unequal cities.

As a gateway for cross-border trade and investment flows, Hong Kong's economy has generated great wealth. However, its low-tax environment and conservative style of government, reminiscent of Thatcherism, has not addressed the deep divide between globalisation's winners and losers.

Owners of capital capture the biggest share of the pie through profits, dividends, rent and other income generated from capital, most of it exempt from tax. However, a growing share of the middle class now feel they do not have equal opportunities and are powerless to change the system.

Young people are taught to be competitive in the education system. But even the ones who do everything right face depressed wages and job insecurity, competing against immigrant talent and, in future, more efficient, lower-cost machines.

Many Hong Kong students feel their quest for academic excellence has not been rewarded in an increasingly cutthroat economic system. Photo: Shutterstock

Many supposed winners in the education system feel like losers. The ongoing protests reflect Hongkongers' - largely the young and middle class - frustration about a system seen as unequal, unaffordable and uncaring.

There is a sense that both the economic and political systems are rigged against ordinary people. That is why some protesters even criticise pan-democratic elites who "do not represent us".

Popular distrust of establishment figures fits with results reported by the Asian Barometer Survey showing that populism - the general dissatisfaction of ordinary people towards those they see as self-serving elites - is on the rise in Asia.

Hong Kong has the second-highest share of people who "do not trust those who rule", behind only Taiwan. Anti-establishment platforms are gathering significant support.

Any coalition in Hong Kong looking to forge a way forward must acknowledge two key sentiments. First, people need a sense of community. The protest movement gives people a sense of community and like-mindedness that is missing when they feel like cogs in a machine, competing in a race to nowhere.

They want Hong Kong's prosperity to be shared and a sense that they are valued and their voices are heard. Political elites have largely neglected the primal group identity that protesters have adopted, which US author Amy Chua calls "tribal politics".

Second, people don't want to be forced into a hierarchy of identities. Younger, more educated and digitally connected Hongkongers have more in common with their global peers than with older-generation Hongkongers. Many do not feel nostalgic about what Hong Kong used to be.

They prefer Hong Kong to be culturally comparable to other global cities. They are therefore sceptical about rhetoric from the government and other elites calling for restoring, rebuilding or returning to anything. All this talk implies going back to the old ways. A more constructive approach would be to strive for innovation, inclusion and individual initiative.

As elements of populism take hold, the rejection of elite proposals to resolve the crisis should come as no surprise. Government and establishment figures need to lower expectations that populist sentiments will be resolved, and that trust can be built, in the short term.

They need to team up with businesses, educational institutions and civil society - key groups in pushing for change across society. Businesses leaders in developed economies already recognise the need for the private sector to create long-term value by investing in their communities, as shown by the new Business Roundtable statement of purpose acknowledging the need to move away from shareholder primacy.

The government needs to prioritise concrete policies that change structural injustice and improve equal access to opportunity. These will require sacrifice and investment by some of the winners of the system, perhaps through more progressive taxation on property for the benefit of those living in smaller flats or more remote areas, and corporate apprenticeship programmes that cater to a range of talent, rather than just the top students.

Officials can level the playing field for small and medium-sized local businesses by making government contracting a more transparent process conducive to the participation of non-incumbents. As the younger generation becomes more prone to job insecurity, with many working temporary or multiple jobs, the government should explore public insurance schemes for so-called "slashies" - those who balance more than one career at a time.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor meets the press in Tamar on August 20. Lam has promised to resolve the disorder in Hong Kong through dialogue with the city's diverse stakeholders, but has inspired little confidence so far. Photo: Sam Tsang

How platforms for further dialogue are designed is key. They could be run as citizens' assemblies, where participation is determined by a lottery among a broader set of the general public willing to be engaged. Facilitators would be selected from younger members of society, who are dedicated to university alumni groups, professional bodies, and non-governmental organisations, who are educated but lack rich parents and do not own property.

Well-designed dialogue, while not a magic bullet, can keep government decision-makers and political parties accountable and channel populist sentiment in more constructive ways.

Hong Kong needs a new social contract that makes people feel cared for, represents their interests and gives them the opportunity to succeed through hard work.

Populism and tribalism, amplified by social media and escalating street action that threatens to lam chao ("burn it all down"), will continue without concrete policies giving young people and the middle class a greater stake in society and legitimate channels to make people feel their voices are heard.

Janet Pau is programme director of the Asia Business Council

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