Wednesday, January 22, 2014, 07:49
‘Lion Rock spirit’ and the working poor
By Jony Lam

If we understand poverty, as we should, not as an individual problem but a collective one, we will notice that there are patterns. The poor cluster around specific industries or jobs, age groups, ethnicity, and locations. Among these factors, education does not necessary play a role as big as our policymakers believe. In fact, it may be useful to simply distinguish two kinds of poor conceptually. The first kind serves as a prelude to a better life; the second kind keeps you where you are forever. When we apply this typology to different groups, we will have some interesting findings.

The post-1950s (or older) like to tell us how poor Hong Kong used to be when they grew up. They ate very simple food and their stomachs were not always as full as they would like them to be; they had few toys, if at all; most of them had to work at an earlier age to support their family and didn’t receive proper schooling. However, most of them did reasonably well over the years, as their individual circumstances were lifted up by the general improvement of society.

These post-1950s include the majority of Hong Kong’s decision-makers today. The key stage of their careers overlapped with a period of astonishing growth. In fact, the growth was so unusual that economists in the West wrote books about it. But these books had no impact upon the post-1950s, who like to see their success as a result of a purely individual effort. They tell us that they have the “Lion Rock spirit” and younger people in the city do not.

We can see a little bit of this myth in the just-released Policy Address. True to the spirit of “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” our government will give us more education. The problem is: This saying only makes sense if there are fish in the sea to be caught in the first place. If the fish are gone, it doesn’t really matter if you give him a fish or a net, or a lesson on how to produce a net.

A university degree is a nice thing to have, but it is less so when its holder is getting a job that used to be filled with people without a degree. Around the world, policymakers and researchers are reviewing the merit of a university education, which tends to be expensive, but may not necessarily equip students with proper general or special knowledge. People on the mainland begin to believe the education system should provide more vocational training, and they are now looking to the German system for inspiration.

Surprisingly, even as 2013 has been dubbed the “worst year in history to graduate” on the mainland, young people there are still relatively optimistic. Nearly half of the mainland’s graduating class, or about 3 million people, struggled to find jobs before they graduated. Entry-level pay sometimes can’t even cover rents in the big city, and on the mainland everyone has to fight for a hukou.

Many of the young working class on the mainland called themselves diaosi, a term that was originally used to curse someone as a loser. The phrase has gone mainstream since 2011 and is widely used by many young Chinese as a trendy way to describe and poke fun at their own low status. Behind this self-pity and self-mockery is the belief that one day they will also make it big and join the ranks of the tuhao, or the unsophisticated new rich.

In Hong Kong, the working poor do not believe themselves to have as bright a future as the diaosi on the mainland. In addition to giving them some extra cash, we need to offer them hope.

The author is a current affairs commentator.