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Call to uphold social justice

As the plans for Christmas holidays are being made and the crazy Christmas sale is about to begin, it is easy to forget poverty casts a long shadow over Hong Kong society.

After addressing and framing the problem recently, media attention quickly shifted away. But suffering remains. The 200,000 poorest households in Hong Kong society survive on $3,000 per month. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa estimated that the number of poor people in Hong Kong is near 1 million, an estimate that is regarded as optimistic by academics and social workers.

The publicís reponse to such statistics is, however, indifferent. According to a survey by the Hong Kong Policy View before the policy address, nearly 70 percent of 554 randomly selected respondents considered laziness and failure to do oneís best as the cause of poverty. Whether the result can be generalised to the whole population or not, it is far from a healthy phenomenon that at least a sector of the public is thinking this.

Many clues imply that Hong Kong people simplify the problem by correlating poverty with individual responsibility. Most Hong Kong people share the value that one has to be self-sufficient in society. Those who succeed as a result of their own efforts are respectable, but those who rely on outside help look pathetic. It is a value that Hong Kong people are proud of, and they believe the foundation of prosperity lies here.

This belief may have been legitimate when the economy of Hong Kong was still labour-intensive. But with economic restructuring, problems surfaced. Those who could not follow the pace of change were left behind and their needs went unattended. Poverty is not a problem that emerged overnight. As early as 1980s, when the economy of Hong Kong saw rapid growth, the number of poor people kept increasing. It indicated that some memebers of society never shared the fruits of prosperity.

Now is the time for Hong Kong people to take the problem seriously. However, in the current cultural context, no radical change can be expected. The chief executive proposes to solve the problem by providing more job opportunities and retraining. Such solutions sound compatible with the common value shared by most Hong Kong people, but it is doubtful whether they can really help.

Poverty was once a force that led Hong Kong people to struggle for a better future. It is this successful experience that frames Hong Kong peopleís attitudes toward poverty now. But situations change over time. The idea of a welfare state may not be wise, but social justice has to be maintained. The real solution to poverty may eventually be found in a balance between the two.

Alison Yeung
Assistant Managing Editor