When Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said last October that Hong Kong’s political system could not allow people earning below HK$14,000 a month to dominate the political process, he was not merely expressing a noxious personal opinion. He was clumsily articulating a long-standing, officially endorsed assumption about how Hong Kong should be governed.
Back in 2006, a series of background papers by the then Constitutional Affairs Bureau warned that political reforms must not lead to an increase in public expenditure faster than growth in gross domestic product, and budget deficits would “lead to financial difficulty, resulting in economic crisis”. They assumed an unproven relationship between democratisation, excessive welfare spending and economic collapse, and concluded that this must be averted by shielding elite interests from the masses.
While the elite worry that we cannot afford to allow lower-wage earners to participate equally in the political process, perhaps we ought to be asking whether we can afford not to. Who are these so-called dangerous voters, and what has been the social cost of their marginalisation?
Foremost in everyone’s mind are our youth. The median wage of twenty-somethings last year was HK$12,000 for men and HK$11,000 for women. Although the tertiary-educated proportion of them has risen from 33 per cent to 60 per cent since 2001, they are earning no more in real terms. Is it any surprise that they are angry? If we have learned anything recently, it is that if the youth are ignored by legitimate channels, they will find other ways to be heard.
Then there are the elderly. While the majority of those over 60 are retired, those who are still working earned a median wage of HK$11,000 for men and a mere HK$7,500 for women. The Commission on Poverty recently reported that thepoverty rate (after policy intervention) for those aged 65 and above was 30.5 per cent, compared to 10.5 per cent for working-age adults. This is the shameful legacy of decades of policies that have paid little attention to the retirement needs of ordinary working people. Hong Kong’s officials are now scrambling to catch up, and their anxiety over the looming grey burden is somewhat ironic considering that the elderly are among the government’s most loyal supporters.
It must also be said that a political system which dismisses the bottom half of wage earners will, almost by definition, give women short shrift. Indeed, the female median wage for every age category except those between 30 and 39 is below HK$14,000. Our economic policies have consistently overlooked women. During downturns, the government aims to create “jobs for the boys” through infrastructure spending, while female-dominated sectors like health care, education and social work receive cuts.
These are the results of a mindset that assumes people exist to serve the economy, instead of the other way round. Yet, stagnating wages, elderly poverty, a family-unfriendly environment and an overemphasis on infrastructure construction are threats to Hong Kong’s long-term sustainability, stability, competitiveness and liveability. It is long past time that the people’s well-being was treated not as a burden, but as the main objective of governance.