SCMP Thursday, June 22, 2000


Haves and have nots

Despite the pain inflicted by the financial crisis, Hong Kong still ranks as an affluent society, although wealth is not evenly spread among the population. Everyone knows that away from the gleaming skyscrapers on the waterfront and the plush mansions on the Peak, there is a seedier side of Hong Kong where wealth has not fully trickled down to its inhabitants.

But it has taken a comprehensive study by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service to reveal the true disparities in the SAR's social development. Since 1981, tremendous progress has been made in the areas of science, technology and education. Life expectancy has risen, crime has dropped and people are living a richer life, both materially and culturally. The pace of progress on sports and the environment has been slow, but has picked up in recent years.

Yet, while there are the "well off" and the "socially secure" who are largely immune and insulated from swings in the economy, the "socially insecure" and an "underclass" of poor people are growing in numbers. They are just making ends meet or surviving on the edge of subsistence.

These social divisions have always existed, in Hong Kong as in many other societies. It has even been argued that the divisions do not matter because avenues for upward social mobility here are open. Indeed, for a long time, a belief that one can make it to the top in this land of opportunities provided one tries hard enough has eased whatever divisions exist between people of varying means.

But as this and other surveys have shown, the "can do" spirit which has been the driving force of growth here has not really been as successful as billed. The fact that many elderly people, after toiling for decades, cannot look forward to a secure retirement and have to depend on social security is a case in point. Although the population as a whole has become more affluent, the number of low-income families is growing. Many young people and children are at considerable risk of suffering development problems, impairing their chances of improving their lot.

Professor Richard Estes, who headed the study and crafted a social development index for Hong Kong, called for a balanced approach to development with equal emphasis on social, economic, cultural and environmental issues. No one could disagree.