House and Home

A lot of people have been struck by the tenacity of the demonstrators, wondering how and why they could keep up their occupation of Hong Kong’s highways for over a month without so far showing any signs of giving up.

I may have stumbled on part of the reason from a news story on an entirely unrelated topic.

Last week one of our major property developers issued the price list for a newly completed project in Kwun Tong. Some of the flats there are as small as 193 square feet, the largest just over 500. Moreover the same news report said these were not the smallest apartments to go on sale recently. Another of our major developers is offering flats as tiny as 165 square feet.

Rub your eyes and look at those numbers again, then pinch yourself and look a third time. That’s what I did, and yes the figures were still there.

A sales manager is quoted as saying the studio flats are "very suitable for first-time buyers". Surely he meant to say "very small people".

One has to ask what kind of social system we have created where flats as small as this are considered to be part of the solution to Hong Kong’s housing problems. In any other developed community they would be considered part of the problem. What kind of economy and property market have we created such that only flats of this size are affordable to a significant number of would-be homebuyers. And what kind of political system have we built to sustain such an appalling situation.

Then you go back to a news story from last month which shows the chairmen of these two property developers among a group of business leaders being feted in the Great Hall of the People by president Xi Jin Ping no less. One of them is standing next to the president in the final photo.

Now you step back and begin to see the big picture. You join up the dots – as those clever students have surely done – and realise why the protestors are so angry about the developments on the political reform front. They are calling for the end of corporate voting because they realise such a practice puts literally hundreds of votes in the pockets of those same property developers who are offering miniscule flats. They are calling for the scrapping of functional constituencies because they realise their existence entrenches the advantages of the "haves" at the expense of the "have-nots".

The most the government has done on corporate voting is to hint that it might be possible to end it in one or two sectors. And it has been totally silent so far on its proposals with respect to the functional constituencies even though by its own admission they need radical reform if they are to be retained at all.

To top things off, we now have a ruling on arrangements for the next chief executive election which effectively means the status quo will be preserved, more or less indefinitely.

The degree of social injustice in Hong Kong is so extreme it screams out for change. If it is to be orderly, it must be faster than gradual. Yet the ruling by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee applies a further brake.

Put yourself in the position of those young students. They know when they graduate they and their spouse’s (if they can scrape up the money to marry) combined income will mean years of frugality while they save up for a deposit on a flat. Given the way flats are shrinking, it is by no means certain they would both be able to fit in it at the same time, let alone start a family.

Against that background, a shared tent in Harcourt Road right now and rent free starts to look like quite an attractive option.

I am not a supporter of Occupy Central. It is causing serious hardship to some individuals and small businesses and is beginning to impact on the wider economy to the disbenefit of all of us. I hope the demonstrators all go home soon. But I do understand why they went in the first place and why they have had the stamina to cling on.