Welcome to the first travel diary on The New Zealand Initiative’s research in Hong Kong. Dr Bryce Wilkinson and myself are currently undertaking a 2 year project on social issues in New Zealand. As with most Initiative research projects, our research will involve international comparisons, eventually culminating into policy recommendations.
For the international comparisons part, we’ve headed to Hong Kong.
I’m hoping to use this blog to debrief and process the meetings we’ve had; reflect on what the lessons for New Zealand may be; and even though I am terrible at it, I may just post a few so you all can feel part of the action. No promises, but there could be food photos to come (either that, or this is an elaborate ploy to gain loyal readers).
So today was our first day of research. After reading up on as much as possible before our trip, this was a great way of actually seeing the reality of the situation. We met with a representative from the Hong Kong Council of Social Services, an umbrella organisation for NGOs. To kick things off, we were given a tour around Hong Kong’s poorest district: Sham Shui Po. We were also given a briefing on the Council’s work and general insights into social issues in Hong Kong.
Here are some first impressions I took away from our tour:
- I felt very safe in the neighbourhood. Hong Kong’s crime rate is very low, and apparently the Sham Shui Po is no different, just because of its socio-economic status. Moreover, I didn’t feel overly out of place, as the district is a tourist attraction, known for its markets. I think about some of the poorest areas in NZ and I wonder whether I would ever enthusiastically recommend tourists go and visit. I’m also now wondering what’s behind the correlation between poverty and crime in NZ. We briefly discussed gangs in HK, who apparently aren’t associated with poverty at all, and in fact run successful above-ground enterprises like shuttle buses around the area.
- I don’t quite know how to articulate it, but it builds on the above point. I think there was a difference in the population’s attitude or spirit, compared to many of the low income places in NZ. It sounds cheesy, and it is totally intangible, but the district was a hub of activity. It certainly didn’t feel hopeless and despondent. Sometimes in NZ I feel there’s this feeling of hopelessness that just seems to sap the energy out of some places.
- The overall unemployment rate in HK is 3.3%. Most of the people living in the poorest district are the working poor, often in service industries or the markets. On the face of it, this affirms some of the readings I’ve done by those critical of the government’s approach. Critics say that the government’s policy of poverty alleviation through employment and economic growth has failed. However, what I’d like to find out is what the counterfactual could have been without growth.
- Much of the population living in poverty is elderly. I want to comment more on comparing this with NZ’s disproportionate child poverty rates, but i haven’t quite got my head around the state support/cultural attitudes and expectations around elderly welfare yet. I’ve read/heard that some of the problem is around lack of state support, but some of it is due to cultural attitudes and expectations regarding welfare too.
- So, the basic characteristics of poverty in HK are the elderly and working poor.
- The public housing is much, much nicer than private housing. Again, compare this to NZ where our state houses stand out in certain areas because of their dilapidated condition.
- Many of the people in the district are from Mainland China, and are ineligible for the same level of state support. Yet, things must not be too awful if people are moving there, and continuing to stay there, even as China’s own economy grows.
To wrap up (mainly because I’m exhausted, not because I’ve run out of things to write!), today Bryce and I got an idea of what poverty looks like in Hong Kong. Over the next week we will be talking to academics, government officials and fellow think tankers to understand why things are the way they are, what’s being done to change it. We certainly ended the day with much more questions that we started with, but I look forward to answering some of them along our way, probably to be replaced with even more questions.
Such is the nature of research!