Hong Kong: a glitzy metropolis with 1 million in poverty

2019-09-20 03:23:22 GMT2019-09-20 11:23:22(Beijing Time) Xinhua English
Wong, who prefers going by an alias, cleans her 37-square-meter public rental house in Choi Hung, Kowloon of south China's Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Sept. 17, 2019. (Xinhua/Luo Huanhuan) Wong, who prefers going by an alias, cleans her 37-square-meter public rental house in Choi Hung, Kowloon of south China's Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Sept. 17, 2019. (Xinhua/Luo Huanhuan)

HONG KONG, Sept. 19 (Xinhua) -- In a narrow alley in the old neighborhood of Sham Shui Po, a gray-haired woman surnamed Chan was busy flattening cartons dumped by nearby stores before loading them onto her tricycle.

At 58, Chan ekes out a living by scavenging on the streets of Hong Kong. By selling cartons to recycling stations at about 50 HK cents (6.4 U.S. cents) per kg, Chan manages to earn 40 to 50 HK dollars a day.

"It is hard, but it is still a job that brings food," said Chan, who considers herself luckier than many. "Those who don't have Hong Kong residence permits are not even allowed to do that here."

A paradise for billionaires and well-heeled shoppers, the metropolis of about 7 million people is also home to over 1.3 million residents trapped in poverty. Official statistics put Hong Kong's poverty rate before government intervention at 20.1 percent in 2017.

Even more striking is its yawning wealth gap. Hong Kong's Gini index, commonly used as a gauge of economic inequality, rose to 0.539 in 2016, the highest in 45 years and far above the warning level of 0.4.

The median monthly income of the top 10 percent of Hong Kong's wealthy households was 43.9 times that of the poorest 10 percent in 2016, up from 33.9 times a decade ago, according to a report issued by aid agency Oxfam in 2018.

As wealth increasingly centralizes in the hands of the few, the hardship of its impoverished population remains salient. Many low-income earners are cooped up in rented cabins the size of a toilet, and youngsters find it increasingly hard to move up the social and career ladders.

Their rising discontent and urge for change are believed to have fed into the recent unrest roiling the special administrative region, prompting officials to promise greater attention to social and economic problems.

GRIM OUTLOOK

Wong, who prefers going by an alias, lives in a 37-square-meter public rental house in Choi Hung, Kowloon, which has been her husband's home for 57 years. The family of four sleep in two juxtaposed bunk beds, with curtains drawn to ensure the limited privacy of their 18-year-old daughter.

Even so, Wong considers herself as among the lucky few in Hong Kong, where houses are among the world's least affordable.

According to Hong Kong's Census and Statistics Department, around 209,700 locals resided in so-called "subdivided flats" in 2016, with 66.9 percent of them living in units with a floor area of 7 to 13 square meters.

Many families are applying for public rental houses, which come with much lower rents. But due to the slow construction of such houses, the average waiting time for an applicant jumped to 5.3 years in 2016, according to Oxfam.

But after being spared from exorbitant rents, Wong's family still struggles to make ends meet. Nearly all of their monthly income of about 20,000 HK dollars, government subsidies included, are spent to keep the family afloat and pay for treatment for their young autistic son. Wong buys frozen meat instead of fresh cuts to save money, and sometimes seeks help from her parents to make up any shortfalls.

When asked if she was satisfied with the status quo, Wong nodded. But she had no idea what would happen to her children.

"I hope my daughter will leave this house to have her own one day, but that's a long way off," she said. "My more immediate worry is that the old building may be demolished and we will have to live in more expensive places in remote areas."

The lack of faith in a brighter future is shared by Ah-fung, a handbag peddler in Tai Yuen Street who represents Hong Kong's many small retailers hit hard by the skyrocketing rents and the onslaught of e-commerce.

Working for others or being self-employed would be equally hard, said the 42-year-old.

"Being a salary earner, you'll have little money left after paying the rent," he said. "Doing business, at least 1 million HK dollars is needed to open a shop. I haven't earned that much money for 20 years."

"If Hong Kong remains like this, our children won't have a good future," he said.

LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS

One scourge of Hong Kong's wealth divide is the hollowing out of its industries, a trend experts said could date back to the 1980s, when Hong Kong started to move out labor-intensive manufacturing industries and reorient to a service-centered economy.

"Hong Kong's economy relies heavily on a few sectors like real estate and finance. While businesspeople in these sectors accumulate vast wealth, the majority of people are unable to get a slice of the pie," said Hong Kong-based economist Liang Haiming.

Over the past 22 years, the successive HKSAR governments have tried many times to tackle these problems by rolling out affordable housing programs and narrowing the rich-poor gap.

To carry out major policies or push forward major bills, the HKSAR government needs to garner the support of two-thirds majority at the Legislative Council (LegCo).

The HKSAR government's previous motions, be it economic policies or fiscal appropriations, were impeded by the opposition time and again at the LegCo.

"They play both the angel and the devil," said Chan Yung, a deputy to the National People's Congress and vice chairperson of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, adding that the opposition has kept making trouble while blaming the government for achieving nothing.

Joseph P.H. Fan, professor of finance and accountancy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, also noted that the HKSAR government's governance is constrained by people with vested interests, and many measures designed to boost the economy and improve people's livelihood are difficult to implement.

No solution lies in the prolonged unrest, though, which has veered off its original agenda to cause a split in society and disrupt the economy.

In July, Hong Kong's retail sales plunged 11.4 percent from a year ago, with officials warning the situation may deteriorate further if the violence continues.

To prevent Hong Kong's economy from tanking, the HKSAR government in August announced a package of economy-boosting measures with a total value of 19.1 billion HK dollars, ranging from waiving government fees and charges on enterprises for 12 months to introducing a new loan guarantee product for smaller companies.

To come out of the economic difficulty, Fan suggested strengthening ties with the Chinese mainland so as to gain more economic momentum. "Hong Kong owes much of its prosperity to its role in bridging China and the world, rather than laissez-faire economic policies," he said.

For his part, Liang suggested that Hong Kong further participate in the development of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, and take this opportunity to bolster the science and technology industry.

Earlier this month, Chief Executive of the HKSAR Carrie Lam promised to reach out to the community to start a direct dialogue and to invite community leaders, professionals and academics to independently review the society's deep-seated problems.

"Let's look for solutions," she said, urging Hong Kong to move forward from the current turmoil.

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