‘Contrast Sensitivity’: An insight into poverty and inequality in one of the richest places in the world

Blog 1: Poverty and Social Exclu­sion in Hong Kong

In February, Dr Lisa Whittaker, Research Officer at the Poverty Alliance spent three weeks in Hong Kong as part of a study trip funded by Glasgow University Principal’s Early Career Mobility Fund (Lisa also works as a Research Assistant at Glasgow University on the project (Re)Imagining Youth study, a comparative research project on youth leisure in Scotland and Hong Kong). Over the next few days she highlights some of the issues of poverty in Hong Kong and the similarities and differences with Scotland. 

Hong Kong is a place of many contrasts. Old temples and new build fancy hotels, little green gardens and parks provide an oasis in the middle of a very densely populated city of 7 million people. During the three weeks I recently spent in Hong Kong I was acutely aware of another contrastbetween rich and poor. I wanted to write about these issues with sensitivity as I am describing the realities of people living in poverty and experiencing social exclusion. After introducing the issue of poverty and exclusion in Hong Kong, this series of blogs will describe the situation for elderly people, housing, what I learned about refugees, asylum seekers and homeless people in Hong Kong and finally democracy and social justice in Scotland and Hong Kong.

I am aware that I only spent three weeks in Hong Kong as a visitor and tourist. As well as being a sociologist, my work for the Poverty Alliance in Scotland meant that I viewed Hong Kong through a particular lens. I tried to use my time there to talk to various people who are far more expert than me about the situation for Hong Kongers (a native or inhabitant of Hong Kong, Oxford English Dictionary). I met with academics and those working in NGOs at a grass roots level with people experiencing poverty, homelessness and social exclusion.

Nan Lian Gardens, Kowloon (photo Lisa Whittaker)

Nan Lian Gardens, Kowloon (photo Lisa Whittaker)

Hong Kong is an extremely developed region and it owes all its wealth to the ever growing finance, trade and commerce. Despite this wealth it is currently estimated that over 1.3 million people are living in poverty in Hong Kong, among which 32.6% are elderly citizens, and 22.2% are children under the age of 14. On average, 1 in 3 elderly people are living in poverty, and many of them are struggling to meet basic nutritional needs. Further, approximately 1 in 4 children do not have three meals a day.

Until recently, it seems, the Hong Kong Government did not want to acknowledge the problem of poverty in Hong Kong. The poverty line was only drawn in 2012. It is the first time the city’s government has set a poverty threshold, which stands at 50% of median household income before tax or welfare benefits (see the Hong Kong Poverty Situation Report 2012 for more details). The official poverty line has three functions: it measures and analyses the overall poverty situation; facilitates evidence-based policy-making; and assesses the effectiveness of policy intervention.

Democracy March 1st February 2015 (photo Lisa Whittaker)

Democracy March 1st February 2015 (photo Lisa Whittaker)

 Asia’s biggest wealth gap

Home prices in Hong Kong have surged to become the world’s most expensive, fuelled by record low interest rates and an influx of mainland Chinese buyers. It is now thought the gap between rich and poor has widened to its worst level since 1971.

Statutory Minimum Wage (SMW) only came into force since 1 May 2011. With effect from 1 May 2013, the SMW rate is revised from $28 per hour to $30 per hour (approx. £3). Recently, the Chief Executive in Council has adopted the recommendation of the Minimum Wage Commission to raise the SMW rate to $32.5 per hour. Subject to the approval of the Legislative Council, the revised SMW rate will take effect from 1 May 2015.

On the day Chief Executive CY Leung took over on July 1 2012, the 15th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China, about 112,000 people took to the streets in protest for issues including minimum wages, income disparities and human rights abuses in China. CY Leung has been plagued by student protests and low popularity since taking office, most recently the Umbrella Movement and Occupy HK.

The Poverty and Social Exclu­sion in Hong Kong Study

I met with Dr Maggie Lau at City University, Hong Kong. Dr Lau was the Principal Investigator in Hong Kong for a large scale study ‘The Poverty and Social Exclu­sion in Hong Kong’ (PSEHK). PSEHK project was funded by the Hong Kong Research Grants Coun­cil and the UK Eco­nomic and Social Research Coun­cil. The pri­mary pur­pose of the research was to advance sci­en­tific knowl­edge and under­standing of how best to under­stand and mea­sure poverty and social exclu­sion in Hong Kong. The research gives facts and fig­ures on a wide range of aspects of mate­r­ial and social depri­va­tion and looks at the impact poverty has on people’s lives, prospects and well-​being. It pro­vides evi­dence as to the under­ly­ing causes of poverty and the key events in people’s lives that can leave them vul­ner­a­ble to poverty. It tracks and assesses the impact of cur­rent poli­cies on the poor. It was a col­lab­o­ra­tive research project with the UK build­ing on recent sci­en­tific advances in the United Kingdom, other Euro­pean coun­tries and adapt­ing them to an urban Chi­nese con­text.

Dr Lau described the situation for those living in poverty in Hong Kong and stressed the need for the government to look beyond the income measure. Poverty is about more than just a lack of money according to this research project, it can also be defined by the inability to take part in activities that most people take for granted. In a similar way to the Poverty Alliance in Scotland, Dr Lau described their use of ‘forum’s’ to bring together the legislative council, NGOs and people experiencing poverty.  The project has produced a fantastic website with many useful resources in an effort to help other researchers attempt­ing to under­take poverty sur­veys in other cities/​countries or amongst spe­cific pop­u­la­tion groups. The main output from the research project is the Hong Kong Poverty Situation Report 2012. In addition to drawing the poverty line the report called for the Government to continue to review existing policies to provide targeted assistance to various needy groups as early as possible, with a view to alleviating and preventing poverty in Hong Kong.

As stated above the over 65s are one of the largest groups in poverty in Hong Kong.  I will describe the situation for many elderly people in more detail in the next blog.

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