Hong Kong people don’t hate the rich – they hate cronyism

Stephen Vines disputes the welfare chief’s characterisation of society

Sometimes, a single sentence in an otherwise unremarkable newspaper story really leaps out at you. This week, it happened with a reported statement by Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, the labour and welfare secretary, who said that a new scheme to help stay-at-home parents rejoin the workforce could reduce “the city’s hatred of the rich”.

This statement provides an unwitting insight into the thinking of senior government officials who are wrapped in a self-reinforcing cocoon and remarkably out of touch with the society they are supposed to serve.

We shall gloss over the general patronising tone of Cheung’s other comments accompanying this statement, as he spoke of how “the kids might feel grateful when they grow up…” and might even be able to become the next chief executive.

Patronising people outside their circle is, after all, the default attitude of Hong Kong’s elite. However, they seem unaware that there is no hatred of the rich as such, but a deep distrust and loathing attached to the cronyism, institutional obstacles and nepotism that have produced a remarkably small and powerful wealthy elite.

Hong Kong people admire creative and hard-working people who, by their own efforts, have succeeded in making money. Indeed, in this immigrant-based society, the creation of wealth is a widely shared aspiration.

What has changed has been the rapid consolidation of the Hong Kong elite’s power and wealth, giving rise to a sense of desperation among those hoping to climb a ladder that evidently has its upper reaches securely blocked.

Moreover, and this is something common to all immigrant-based communities as they mature and become more settled, there is less of a focus on wealth alone. A wider appreciation of other important aspects of life starts to develop. This, in turn, breeds greater social and political awareness of a kind so feared by the elite.

Many of the younger people who took part in the recent street protests belong to the third generation of Hong Kong residents. They are looking beyond mere individual economic survival to collectively building a community, which they view with pride.

I also happen to be a third-generation descendant of very poor immigrants who arrived in Britain with nothing. My grandparents worked and worked to feed and clothe my parent’s generation. That generation climbed out of poverty with steely determination and became more self-confident members of the wider community.

My generation reaped the rewards of their hard work. We started to take economic sufficiency for granted. Still, we had an awareness of how it came about and this may explain why we were attracted to social and political activism that not only affirmed our identification with the wider community, but was also part of a feeling that we had to pay something back to a society that gave shelter and opportunities to our grandparents.

This pattern of behaviour is clearly evident in Hong Kong and should be widely lauded. But, instead, it is viewed with fear by those who have scrambled to the top of the pile and want to ensure they stay there.

Ironically, the scheme Cheung was talking about is one of the few government plans that makes sense because there are many parents, especially mothers, who can become valuable members of the workforce, if their domestic obligations allow this to happen.

The problem is that the government sees this kind of social, and indeed economic, advancement as part of its plan for containing social and political pressure, not as an end in itself.

As ever, what the privileged elite fears most are the people.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur