Thursday 30 August 2012

Why are Hong Kongers so unhappy?

Famous go-getting spirit seems to be giving way to collective anxiety
By Li Xueying, The Straits Times, 29 Aug 2012

HONG KONG - In Hong Kong, there are nine Fortune Courts, four Rich Courts and three Wealthy Courts - mostly built in the 1980s and 1990s.

In more recent years, in vogue are projects named after overseas locations: Residence Bel-Air, La Maison Du Nord, Sunrise Cannes.

Any marketing student knows that in selling anything, it is essential to pitch it to the aspirations of one's clientele.

So the shift in residential name fads may be a case of evolving aesthetic taste. But it also points to something deeper that has changed in Hong Kong.

A people who used to pride themselves on being go-getters, who believed they could become rich/wealthy/make their fortune if they put their minds to it, have become anxious that they can no longer succeed in Hong Kong. Far better, it seems, to dream of living in a paradise away from here.

As Mr Bernard Chan, an Executive Council adviser to Hong Kong leader Leung Chun Ying, told The Straits Times: "We need to reignite that 'can-do spirit'."

He relates how 10 or 15 years ago, young people talked of wanting to be the next Li Ka Shing. Today, the feeling that the system is "not fair" has dented this drive.

This could help explain the seeming paradox of Hong Kong.

It ranks top or near the top in many lists, for liveability, safety, residents' longevity, free economy, lack of corruption, and so on. Yet Hong Kongers are not happy.

According to the Global Barometer of Happiness, just four in 10 Hong Kongers said they felt happy, sending the territory to No. 42 on the list of 58 polled. The most recent survey, the Happy Planet Index, had Hong Kong at No. 102 among 151 - the lowest-ranked Asian entry. Singapore was the second-lowest, at No. 90.

Such findings, together with a record number of protests - 6,878 last year - were probably what prompted Taiwanese writer Alice Yang to point to Hong Kongers' "collective anxiety".

Her article in the Yazhou Zhoukan, noting the same trend in Taiwan, Singapore and the mainland, was cited by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday, as he spoke of how the anxiety is due to the "Four Asian Dragons" searching for a new development path after an era of rapid growth.

Hong Kongers are down in the dumps for a variety of reasons.

Material success - and having more of it compared with one's peers - has always been key to happiness in Hong Kong, noted Dr Hayes Tang, a sociologist from Hong Kong University (HKU).

But this Hong Kong dream is being thwarted by structural obstacles, most notably the dominance of vested property and banking interests in the economy, and by extension their hold on the government, given that half its revenue comes from land sales.

So, the government's tight tap on land supply and loose rein over powerful developers have led to soaring housing prices - a 240 per cent rise in nine years. Business centre manager Harriet Wong, 35, rues that in her 600 sq ft flat that packs in six dwellers, "there is no space for ornaments, and we have to use digital photo frames so we can display our various photos".

Meanwhile, an economy with little scope beyond property and finance presents few opportunities for hungry Hong Kongers. So, the rich get richer, the poor get help, and the middle class stays stuck.

Exacerbating this problem is the influx of mainlanders into Hong Kong after the handover. Last year there were 28 million visitors from the mainland, a 15-fold increase from 1997. It has led to infrastructural strains. Ugly anti-mainland rhetoric has ensued.

On a more visceral level is Hong Kongers' sense of powerlessness over their destiny. Delays in implementing universal suffrage have deepened this angst, as has having to adjust to being "just another southern Chinese city".

A new path for Hong Kong means fixing all these various issues. There are no easy answers: For instance, would Hong Kongers give up their status as the world's freest economy to prevent foreigners from buying their homes? Would they pay higher taxes to shake off the shackles of the property developers?

It is an ongoing conversation - one that might find new life in the wake of PM Lee's speech, with HKU academic Paul Yip saying that Hong Kong, like Singapore, may have to hike taxes too.

Whatever it is, Mr Chan believes Hong Kongers' can-do spirit is still present. "It's up to us to find the way," he says.

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