Politics of Envy

When I first arrived in Hong Kong, one of the things that struck me most forcefully was the lack of envy. There was a wide gulf in the material circumstances of the population. Hillside squatter huts lived cheek by jowl with palatial mansions. But when poor people – we were by far the majority – saw a person driving a Rolls Royce, they didn’t resent the fact that someone was better off than themselves. Rather they dreamed that if they worked hard and had some luck then one day they might be well off too. And if wealth did not come to themselves personally, then at least their children would have a chance to succeed.

Perhaps this sentiment was explained by another strong impression around that time: life was tough but this was a city of opportunity. Living in a humble illegal shack or – as I did – in a multi-occupancy flat where bathroom and kitchen were shared with three other families, was only temporary: there was always hope that tomorrow would be a better day.

I think it is this last factor that has gradually gone missing. Too many people believe they have no future, hence a rising age of marriage, and a lower propensity to have children. Why tie yourself down when it might be better to keep options open? Why bother to bring a new generation into the world if you think their life will be even bleaker than your own? For our students, the last 20 years have chiselled away at the "graduate premium", the idea that years spent securing that university degree will be more than compensated for by a higher salary later on.

Two major consequences have flowed from this change in sentiment. The first is that our young people have become disillusioned with life in general and with our political situation in particular. The second is that a new negative spirit – what some call the politics of envy – has crept into public discourse.

Thus we see our university students, the future elite who should have so much to look forward to and who should be setting an example of good behaviour appropriate to their privileged position, acting on occasion without even elementary good manners. I am not thinking here of Occupy, which I still see as having been a spontaneous outburst of genuine distress at the shameful inadequacy of the government’s political reform package. The movement was by and large orderly and disciplined. Rather I have in mind the intimidation tactics used outside the University of Hong Kong Council chamber last year, and the more recent disgraceful episode at the Baptist University.

What was remarkable about this last event was that it took place in an educational establishment supposedly with a religious ethos, and that students in other institutions came out in support of the two students temporarily suspended. And the underlying cause – objecting to a minimum requirement for Putonghua capability for graduates – was totally devoid of merit. Given the reality of Hong Kong’s circumstances, every child finishing secondary school should be able to converse in the national language.

The second phenomenon is illustrated by the nature and tone of the attack on recreational clubs spearheaded by of all people the Civic Party. The spark in this case was the idea floated in the context of addressing the chronic housing situation that we should build apartments on all or part of the Fanling golf course. The possibility has some superficial attraction, in that the lease is expiring soon and other sites in the area are being developed for residential use.

But as one of the best town planners in Hong Kong, Ian Brownlee, pointed out on a recent radio show, those other sites have been the subject of comprehensive planning studies, the results are available and development can now proceed with all due speed. This is not the situation with respect to the golf course.

Moreover, Hong Kong needs more green spaces and recreation opportunities, not fewer. And as Brownlee pointed out, there is no shortage of land in the New Territories, only a lack of political will to stand up to vested interests and develop it.

But what could have been a serious public debate about priorities has descended into a vitriolic attack on supposed privileged minorities, and the scope has widened to include all private sports clubs. Have people forgotten that the Rugby Sevens in which we all take so much pride was spawned by unpaid volunteers at the Hong Kong Football Club? That the Cricket Sixes event which is attracting so much favourable attention internationally grew out of the initiative of another club? That we are famous worldwide for the quality and excitement of our international horse races organised by the Jockey Club? Yes, and that the Hong Kong Open is well respected in international golfing circles?

These events project an image to the world of Hong Kong as an exciting, happening and sophisticated place. This helps not only to attract visitors for the events themselves, but also create an environment which attracts international companies to set up here which creates jobs.

The government has a duty to resist the politics of envy. Provided the clubs are organising world class events and allowing reasonable access to the wider public, then they should be allowed to continue.