Hong Kong's young people vent their anger at wrong target

Updated: 2017-05-29 08:12

By Peter Liang(HK Edition)

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The many restless Hong Kong youths are rebels who have picked the wrong cause.

They have been misled by politicians of the opposition camp, liberal academics and foreign observers into believing their troubles are all political. This, in turn, has given rise to the demand by the disillusioned youth for a greater say in the government decision-making process.

Convinced that they are not getting what they wanted, they have turned their anger against the establishment, which includes the government, police, big businesses and even the judiciary. Most alarmingly, years of frustration have caused a growing number of young people to give up hope.

A 29-year-old university graduate told BBC she studied politics because she wanted to contribute to society. But by now she has lost her confidence in the future of Hong Kong, she said. Results of several recent surveys show 80 percent of the respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 said they were unhappy with the political situation; 60 percent wanted to emigrate.

These findings have painted a dark picture that the government cannot ignore. Authorities have promised to establish more effective channels of communication with young people. That would certainly help. But the proposal falls far short of addressing the root of the problem which lies in economy, although it is manifested most vividly in politics.

By all measures, Hong Kong has the widest income gap between the rich minority and the majority of the population among developed economies. The problem is compounded by the highly imbalanced economic structure, which is over-dependent on the finance and property sectors for growth.

As a result, the availability of well-paid jobs has become extremely limited; most of the services sector jobs open to young workers are of the low-skill, low-pay type. What's more, high housing costs have made it extremely difficult for many young people to save up enough money to start their own businesses.

Nobody doubts the government efforts to try and solve the problem by increasing land supply and exploring various opportunities to help diversify the economy. But there is a limit as to how far it can stray from long-established economic policy without upending the trusted system that embodies the many advantages Hong Kong enjoys over its regional rivals.

An imperfect economy aside, Hong Kong can be justifiably proud of its economic performance in past decades, overcoming the tough challenges arising from the outbreak of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 and prolonged global recession in more recent years. Indeed, achieving an average GDP growth of about 3 percent a year has made Hong Kong the envy of many other developed economies.

More important is that unemployment rate has stayed at about 3 percent, which indicates virtual full employment, even during the worst global recession. The strong demand for workers in some parts of the services sector, particularly catering, has greatly boosted wages of many jobs requiring minimum skills, such as dish washing at fast food chains.

The widening wealth gap can be seen as an inevitable result of an economic development that began long ago in the 1980s, before many young adults were born. The wholesale exodus of industries to the Pearl River Delta region generated tremendous wealth that brought about an unprecedented boom in the Hong Kong services sector.

In the process, Hong Kong has lost some of its most valuable assets, the expertise in the high-value-added top and bottom ends of the manufacturing process. To be sure, Hong Kong can still lay claim to be the region's premier trade-financing hub. But it is losing out to its regional rivals in research and development, product design, packaging and logistics.

The government, of course, has a duty to make available top-notch facilities to train young people in such expertise. But the effectiveness of such facilities will depend not on how much public money is spent on them, but rather on the motivation of the young people to learn skills that can help facilitate the much-needed economic restructuring and create new opportunities which will bring hope to the many thousands of dispirited youths.

Strange as it may sound coming from a senior executive of a major property developer, there is much to ponder in his comment that young people should stop worrying about buying their own homes so that they can concentrate on improving their skills and knowledge needed to move up the social and economic ladder.

The author is a veteran current affairs commentator.

(HK Edition 05/29/2017 page4)