Hong Kong riches not split equally

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Speeches and ceremonies in Hong Kong yesterday to commemorate its first decade under Chinese rule also served as a painful reminder of a growing gap between rich and poor.

With its economy closely tied to China, Hong Kong”s economic growth has rebounded since the Asian financial crisis that followed its switch from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

But the gap between the wealthiest and poorest citizens is widening with dangerous speed, politicians and economists say.

“The low-income members of our community don”t feel that they have a fair share of the fruits of our economic development,” said Paul Chan, a founder and president of an accounting firm who is also a member of the Election Committee that chooses the city”s chief executive.

Ho Hei-wah, director of the Society for Community Organization, a nonprofit group that helps the financially and socially disadvantaged, said the Hong Kong government “has no long-term policies” to address acute social problems.

“It is most scornful to see economic development brings social inequality,” he said. “These deprived cannot enjoy our economic success. They have been snubbed and fallen into oblivion.”

Mr. Ho recently took a Washington Times reporter to a building on a backstreet in the Kowloon neighborhood, where seven households occupy 5-by-7-foot cubicles with a sliding door.

In that space, they keep everything they own. They share a kitchen and toilet. There is no shower or hot water.

“It’s not easy living here,” said Tam Chun-leung, 74, as he sat on the bed with his 70-year-old wife, Szeto Kwun-tai. “We get a lot of help. We have an arrangement with the landlord to clean the place and pay only half of the rent.”

The “place” is a floor in a privately owned, rundown building across the harbor from Hong Kong island with some of the most stunning views of the city”s skyline.

Hong Kong”s economic growth has remained strong, although it declined from 8.6 percent in 2004 to less than 7 percent last year. Unemployment has been halved from the 8.6 percent during the Asian financial crisis, which began in 1997.

Liu Ah-lin, a 30-year-old housewife who was cooking lunch for her 11-year-old son, said that rent was about $128 a month. Government housing, she said, would be two to three times more expensive, and her husband”s construction job does not pay enough for them to move.

According to figures released in January by Hong Kong”s Social Welfare Department, an elderly family member who is disabled receives about $278 a month in government assistance. A person in the same category but younger than 60 gets $228.

Department officials said they try to “provide for the basic and special needs of the members of the community who are in need of financial or material assistance.”

Mr. Ho and the people his organization helps hope that Donald Tsang, who was sworn in for a second term as the city”s chief executive yesterday, will urgently address Hong Kong”s acute, though somewhat hidden, social problems.

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