HK’s de­ci­sive bal­anc­ing act

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - HK COM­MENT - KERRY BROWN The au­thor is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of China Stud­ies Cen­ter and pro­fes­sor of Chi­nese Pol­i­tics at Univer­sity of Syd­ney; team leader of the Europe China Re­search and Ad­vice Net­work (ECRAN) funded by the Euro­pean Union; and as­so­ciate fel­low at Chath

China has clearly en­tered a pe­riod of pro­found mo­bil­ity. In the 2010 na­tional cen­sus, 230 mil­lion peo­ple were cat­e­go­rized as mi­grants. Many live in the Pearl River Delta, mov­ing from their ru­ral home lands to work in fac­to­ries or com­pa­nies mak­ing goods for do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional mar­kets. It was this vast army of peo­ple that the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee of the Com­mu­nist Party of China had in their sights when they promised house­hold reg­is­tra­tion re­form dur­ing the Third Plenum in Novem­ber. Mi­grant la­bor­ers in China have been the great foot sol­diers of re­form, but they are also those who have made the great­est sac­ri­fices. Their need for a more se­cure future in terms of wel­fare and ac­cess to pub­lic goods is po­lit­i­cally very press­ing. It would not be an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say the as­pi­ra­tions of China as it be­comes a global econ­omy and world power rest on the backs of its mi­grant la­bor­ers, their chil­dren and de­pen­dents.

Mo­bil­ity on the main­land mat­ters to Hong Kong be­cause in many ways it sits in the front line of this vast process. The SAR has a pop­u­la­tion of just over 7 mil­lion. But in 2012, a stag­ger­ing 30 mil­lion came from the main­land on vis­its of a day or more. Some came in tran­sit; some came to shop and headed back to their homes. A few came to set­tle. What­ever they did, this is an im­mense stream of peo­ple, and their im­pact on Hong Kong’s cul­ture, phys­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture, and econ­omy has been, and will con­tinue to be, huge. From a pe­riod of only a decade ago when it was very de­mand­ing bu­reau­crat­i­cally to get per­mis­sion to visit Hong Kong with a main­land ID, it is now straight­for­ward. Even more im­por­tant, a large part of Hong Kong’s eco­nomic pros­per­ity re­lies on this flow of high spend­ing by peo­ple who are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly af­flu­ent.

This flow gives Hong Kong and its sis­ter cities on the main­land a point of com­mon in­ter­est. Shanghai, with a pop­u­la­tion three times that of the SAR, has half a mil­lion new res­i­dents mov­ing in ev­ery year. The phys­i­cal im­pact of these new ar­rivals in terms of find­ing jobs, homes and com­mu­ni­ties for them is chal­leng­ing enough. But there were longer-term prob­lems. How do you cre­ate so­cial co­he­sion in a com­mu­nity with this speed of change? How do peo­ple set down roots in an en­vi­ron­ment where al­most ev­ery day there is rapid trans­for­ma­tion and yes­ter­day is like an­cient his­tory? How do you build up the fab­ric of a sta­ble so­ci­ety where ev­ery­one is a new comer and there is lit­tle set­tled sense of a com­mon cul­ture?

Hong Kong has an­swers to some of the ques­tions about sus­tain­abil­ity, but there might also be things it can learn from main­land cities. With them, it has com­mon prob­lems about en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity. Pol­lu­tion in the city is a ris­ing prob­lem. So is hous­ing. Find­ing ways of ac­com­mo­dat­ing an in­creas­ingly ex­pec­tant and well-ed­u­cated work force that avoid un­rest and pub­lic dis­sat­is­fac­tion is a crit­i­cal chal­lenge for gov­ern­ments. And while the sys­tems in Hong Kong and main­land cities are dif­fer­ent, the root is­sue is the same. As cit­i­zens grow wealth­ier, they are also grow­ing less con­tent, and more vo­cal in their dis­sat­is­fac­tion. This is the para­dox of de­vel­op­ment. Money does not, in the end, guar­an­tee hap­pi­ness. Find­ing in­tan­gi­ble things which do will be a com­mon mis­sion for the Hong Kong and cen­tral gov­ern­ments.

Both on the main­land and in Hong Kong, the great is­sues of ed­u­ca­tion pro­vi­sion and pub­lic goods, and deal­ing with inequal­ity, are go­ing to be­come key per­for­mance in­di­ca­tors on which the gov­ern­ing class is likely to be held ac­count­able. GDP growth alone won’t solve these, as is be­com­ing clear on the main­land where the era of dou­ble digit growth is over. Hong Kong, as a re­mark­able book by for­mer head of Hong Kong gov­ern­ment’s Cen­tral Pol­icy Unit Leo Good­stadt makes clear, is fac­ing grow­ing inequal­ity where the wealthy sit side by side with those who are deprived and dis­en­fran­chised.

It is likely that di­a­logue and de­bate to deal with generic is­sues that arise from rapid change, and so­cial mo­bil­ity, will be­come more press­ing in the years ahead. Lead­ers will need to be open-minded and prag­matic about what new meth­ods might work. Hong Kong has an en­vi­able health­care sys­tem, and its pro­vi­sion of pub­lic goods from ed­u­ca­tion to some forms of wel­fare has been strong. But huge is­sues about pub­lic hous­ing, care for the el­derly, and pro­vid­ing ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion for in­creas­ing num­bers of peo­ple will arise. Along­side these will be the prob­lems of how to at­tack inequal­ity in so­ci­ety at a time when this is grow­ing worse al­most ev­ery­where. Hong Kong has a lot to teach in these ar­eas, and has so far main­tained a rel­a­tively bal­anced, sta­ble so­cial sys­tem de­spite the im­mense in­flux of new in­flu­ences and peo­ple. But its iden­tity and so­cial sys­tems are go­ing to face tougher de­mands in future. It is likely that its great­est as­set over this pe­riod will not just be to teach but to lis­ten as the world en­ters a phase of pro­found tech­ni­cal, po­lit­i­cal and so­cial trans­for­ma­tion.

Kerry Brown

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