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

Blog 5: Democracy and Social Justice in Scotland and Hong Kong

LisaWIn her final essay Dr Lisa Whittaker, Research Officer at the Poverty Alliance, considers some of the contrasts and similarities between Hong Kong and Scotland in relation is democracy and social justice 

I went to Hong Kong with several aims; one of them was to find out more about poverty, inequalities and social exclusion. Despite this it has felt slightly uncomfortable writing these blogs and highlighting very negative aspects of a place I only visited for three weeks. I very much enjoyed the time I spent in Hong Kong and would recommend everyone to visit. The people were friendly and helpful, I felt very safe there, there is a huge amount to see and do, the food was amazing and I found the transport system (MTR) excellent and affordable, especially compared to some other places I’ve visited. There are two things I would like to reflect on in this final blog. Firstly, I’d like to highlight some of the similarities and differences between Hong Kong and Scotland. Secondly, I will to discuss the recent Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong.

It seems only appropriate to consider the situation in Hong Kong in relation to Scotland, where I live and work. However, I’m keen to avoid statements of who is better or worse off but rather try to understand the similarities, differences and challenges that each country faces.  At first glance, Scotland and Hong Kong are incredibly distant, both culturally and geographically. People speak different languages, practice different religious sensibilities and educational philosophies. They also have differing economic, welfare, justice and health systems.  Yet, there are also some striking parallels. Both were key players in the British Empire, both shifted to service-based economies, leaving many former industrial workers unemployed. And most recently both Scotland and Hong Kong have engaged in fierce discussions about their future, with issues of independence and identity at the heart of them.

Poverty in Scotland (2014) details the situation regarding poverty, austerity, welfare and inequalities in Scotland. The authors state that “by any measure, Scotland remains a society that continues to be scarred by poverty” 2013 statistics reveal:

870,000 people in Scotland still live in poverty (17% of the population) and 200,000 children in Scotland live in poverty (20% of all children)

I found some situations in Hong Kong shocking but then I questioned whether I have become desensitised to equally shocking scenes here in Scotland.  With daily reported tax avoidance and benefit fraud, food banks, rapid rise in zero hour contracts, homelessness, hunger and suicides on the increase – I wonder if the government’s welfare reforms have gone too far but also has poverty and inequality become so ingrained in the fabric of our social lives that it has become normalised?

The Poverty Alliance strives to create a sustainable Scotland based on social and economic justice, with dignity for all, where poverty and inequalities are not tolerated and are challenged. The Alliance was formally established in 1992, growing out of an informal network of groups and individuals active since the mid 1980s.  The Alliance acts as the national anti-poverty network in Scotland, working with voluntary organisations, policy makers and politicians at Scottish, UK and European levels. The Poverty Alliance seeks to influence policies at all level that have an impact on poverty and can create the conditions for a more socially just Scotland.  This is done through a range of activities: campaigns, lobbying, networking, project work, awareness raising, training.  Central to our approach is working alongside people experiencing poverty to have their voices heard.

One of the Poverty Alliance’s current campaigns is the Scottish Living Wage Campaign. I was surprised to learn that the Statutory Minimum Wage was only introduced in Hong Kong in 2011. In Scotland we have recognised that our minimum wage is not sufficient, in-work poverty is a huge problem. Recent figures show that 53% of adults living in poverty reside in a household where at least one person works. And 110,000 Scottish children who live in poverty have at least one parent in work. The Living Wage is one of the most important tools we have in reducing poverty in Scotland. Low pay plays a significant role in keeping large numbers of Scottish workers and their families living in poverty. Successive Governments have asserted that work is the most effective route out of poverty; however this is only true if people have the opportunity to access decent, secure, well-paid jobs. Work should be based on a wage that affords workers the chance to achieve a decent standard of living for themselves and their families.  I believe people in Hong Kong would also like to live in a socially just society. While I was in Hong Kong I joined a march for democracy. Many Hong Kongers are currently demanding change and protesting for democracy and social justice.

Democracy March, Hong Kong, 1st February 2015

Democracy March, Hong Kong, 1st February 2015

The Umbrella Movement is a pro-democracy political movement that was created spontaneously during the Hong Kong protests of 2014. The movement consists tens of thousands of individuals who participated in the protests that began on 28 September 2014, although Scholarism, the Hong Kong Federation of Students, Occupy Central with Love and Peace are groups principally driving the demands for the rescission of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) of the People’s Republic of China decision on proposed reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system. In its decision, the NPCSC said that civil nominations, whereby a candidate could run for election to the Hong Kong Legislative Council if he or she received signed endorsement of 1% of the registered voters, would be disallowed. The decision stated that a 1200-member nominating committee, the composition of which remains subject to a second round of consultation, would elect two to three electoral candidates with more than half of the votes before the general public could vote on them.

Democracy March, Hong Kong, 1st February 2015

Democracy March, Hong Kong, 1st February 2015, Photo: Lisa Whittaker

I visited the Occupy site at Admiralty during my first week in Hong Kong. Although no longer occupied some people do remain in their tents, although exactly how many is hard to estimate. I spoke to a small group of people huddled under a gazeebo, one young man was 22 and explained that he was determined to stay until the government changed their mind.  I also joined a protest march for democracy on 1st February in solidarity with the people of Hong Kong.  Many people commented that day that the Umbrella Movement is about much more than democracy, a feeling echoed by the academics and social workers I also spoke to during my trip. The Umbrella Movement is about social justice for all Hong Kongers. I also spoke to a colleague in Hong Kong who took part in Occupy Central and the Umbrella Movement, she explained that there were generally two camps in the movement: “yellow ribbons” supporting the movement and “blue ribbons” supporting the Government and police. But she also said there were many people who didn’t show support for either group. For my colleague, and others wearing yellow ribbons, the movement is for social justice for all Hong Kongers, while many people wearing blue ribbons thought the people wearing yellow ribbons are just selfish people creating chaos and troubles on the street.

Democracy March, Hong Kong, 1st February 2015

Democracy March, Hong Kong, 1st February 2015, Photo: Lisa Whittaker

Poverty is about not having enough. It is complex but for me it’s about more than not having enough money. Poverty can be a lack of resources, opportunities, inadequate housing, not being able to heat your house properly or to eat enough. Poverty impacts many areas of people’s lives including their mental health and wellbeing. Seeing poverty and social exclusion in a different culture has only strengthened my view that as part of the Poverty Alliance we must do all we can to try to eradicate poverty and inequality, not only in my home country of Scotland but across the world. But with the growing gap between rich and poor globally – how can we imagine a future without poverty? I’ll end with this image, I walked past this almost every day during my trip to Hong Kong and for me it sums up this blog series:

Hong Kong University, Photo: Lisa Whittaker

Photo: Lisa Whittaker


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