The Hong Kong That You May Not Know About

(Southern Weekend)  The Hong Kong That You May Not Know About.  By Zhang Rui (张悦).  June 28, 2007.

[in translation]

In 1997, the female singer named Ai Jing (艾敬) had a very popular song entitled <My 1997>.  The song lyrics such as "He can come to Shenyang but I cannot go to Hong Kong" and "1997, come quickly" were very well-known throughout the mainland.  But when this song showed up in Hong Kong, it created a certain degree of fear -- if all 1.3 mainlanders can come to Hong Kong at will, Hong Kong may be disrupted.

Hong Kong has been returned to China for 10 years already.  With the beginning of "solo travel" in 2003, more and more mainland residents have visited Hong Kong.  But even though this reporter has been to Hong Kong many times, there are still moments of cultural shock.

You step out of the Hung Hom train station and you immediately see a large number of banners that will frighten mainlanders on their first visit to Hong Kong.  Over at Star Ferry pier, you will also find people giving you posters and pamphlets.  You can see these types of dissidents almost everywhere in Hong Kong when you rarely ever see them on the mainland.  This shows that Hong Kong enjoys the freedom of speech.  If you are just expressing political opinions and not engaged in subversion, Hong Kong can disregard your presence.

Apart from these superficial phenomena, you will find more shocks at a deeper level if you savor the place carefully.

On the first day that I came to Hong Kong, the former Southern Weekend chief editor Qian Gang (钱钢) who is now a research fellow at the Hong Kong University took us out to eat in a building that has "special Hong Kong characteristics."

This building is actually called the "Municipal Government Building."  There are no public servants working there.  This is a building that the government spends public funds to have the complete facilities to serve the residents in the district.

Hong Kong has 18 districts.  Each district has several of these "Municipal Government Buildings" based upon the stage of development and size of the district.  They look more or less the same: The lower level is a food market and a grocery market with everything from chickens, ducks, fish and meat to needles and threads.  On the second floor, there is a row of small restaurants collected together in one place.

Afterwards, we visited another "Municipal Government Building" that was constructed for HK$400 million.  This building received an excellence award from the Hong Kong Architects' Association.  Apart from the same markets, this building also has a modern indoor climbing wall, a gymnasium, a swimming pool and other recreational facilities; it has a free "study room" for children to do their homework after school; there is a public library too.  The usage fees for these facilities are very cheap.  I inquired and found out that it costs HK$30 to rent a badminton court for 1 hour.  This is cheaper than the same type of facility in Beijing or Shanghai.

On the other hand, the Municipal Government Building was not low-browed and disorderly because it was serving the ordinary citizens.  It cannot be said to be luxurious, but it was modernized, clear and quiet.  It is difficult to imagine that apart from the landmark buildings or luxurious government office buildings, the mainland government would spent some much effort to build so many modern buildings "for the people."

Qian Gang said that when in Hong Kong, one cannot use one's original values to distinguish between socialism and capitalism.  This Municipal Government Building is a standard product of socialism!

The people of Hong Kong are famous for obeying rules.  Even at the peak of a double holiday, the swimming pool at the Municipal Government Building was not crowded and chaotic because the Hong Kong people even queue when they swim.  The swimming pool is divided by several ropes, including a "fast lane," a "low lane" and even a "lap pool."  Adults and children will follow the rules as if they were walking down the street -- they follow the ropes from one end to the other and back again.

The military vehicles of the Hong Kong garrison must be the ones that are most obedient to traffic rules in all of China.  These military vehicle drivers who drive around with the "ZG" license plates may not know a single world of Cantonese.  But before they drove into Hong Kong for the first time, they will have memorized all the traffic rules in Hong Kong, they know each of the Hong Kong expressways and they are thoroughly familiar with the almost 200 traffic signs in Hong Kong.

In the past, the British military vehicles enjoyed the privilege of "free passage through the tunnels while on duty."  The People's Liberation Army gave that up, so that the Hong Kong rules become more straightforward.

Phoenix TV commentator Cao Jingxing (曹景行) once mentioned an incident.  In early 2000, a veteran soldier driving a container truck exceeded the speed limit and the Hong Kong police sent a speeding ticket to the Hong Kong garrison.  The superior immediately took away the soldier's "special permit to drive to and fro Hong Kong" and forbade him to drive for six months.

Another Phoenix TV commentator Leung Man-to (梁文道) chatted with us and complained that the new law in Hong Kong forbade smoking in all indoor areas.  So he was feeling very oppressed at not being able to smoke.

While some people were complaining, the Hong Kong people will obey the law once it is passed.  Even the hotel rooms that the reporter stayed in had no-smoking signs.  Certain open-air public areas in Hong Kong are also no-smoking zones.  For example, there was an activity involving 10,000 people at Victoria Park and I saw that there was not a single cigarette butt in the whole area afterwards.  This can really make people thoughtful.

All this occurs in Hong Kong because the government officials, the media and the citizens all have a strong sense about following the rules.  This is a system of culture.  Within this cultural environment, the rules dominate the hidden rules, which are strangled in the cradle and have no ground to exist.  Never mind about any non-rules.

Before going to Hong Kong this time, I did a news report on "the most awesome nail house" in Chongqinq.  The Hong Kong reporter friends who read my report naturally began to discuss the case, and then they told me about the "nail house affair" in Hong Kong that was the talk of its time.

Oddly enough, the mainland media had cited many nail houses in Japan, Germany and England, but they missed the closer and more comparable case in Hong Kong.

Afterwards, I looked up the media reports at the time and I was even more astonished.

In Hong Kong, an 80-something-year-old farmer woman and her daughter challenged the Heng Kee group under Hong Kong real estate mogul Lee Shau-kee over a piece of land 120,000 square feet in area near Jade Garden, Taipo (New Territories).  The two sides started a long and extended fight over the land.  On January 5, 2006, the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeals ruled in favor of  the farmer woman and her daughter who are genuine grassroots elements and showed no favor whatsoever for the real estate mogul.

On one side, there was an old woman with little clout or voice.  On the other side, there was an immensely wealthy real estate mogul.  I find it hard to think about how this affair would turn out if it had occurred on the mainland.  In Chongqing, I saw far too many "nail house owners" and peasants who lost their land from all over China trying to get help from the media.  In Hong Kong, no one goes around petitioning.  Nor do they stuff petition materials into the hands of the reporters while crying.

We also did not anticipate the huge gap between the rich and the poor in Hong Kong.  The mainland tourists on a whirlwind tour will only see the superficial side of Hong Kong -- they might look down from Victoria Peak at the brightly lit Hong Kong island, or they might look up at the majestic Bank of China building in Central.  But no one will see the despondent dismissed workers in Sham Shui Po, or the new migrants in Kwun Tong and Yuen Long who have never ever been to Central.  Among the 7 million Hong Kong residents, 1.12 million people live below the poverty line (in 2004, the Hong Kong Social Service Federation issued a report in which the 2 million residents of Hong Kong were divided into 10 groups; the lowest group has 1.12 million people who earn an average monthly income of HK$2,977).

In the election platforms for the Hong Kong Chief Executive this year, both candidates promised to solve the problem of the increasing gap between the rich and the poor.  Donald Tsang described it to be "a serious social problem."

Phoenix TV's Leung Wan-to said that 10 years ago, Li Ka-shing was known as 'Superman Li' and he was the idol.  Li represented the "Hong Kong dream" in which one has the chance to succeed if one works hard.  Nowadays, even taxi drivers are cursing Li Ka-shing as the bastard who is engaging in monopolistic practice and government-business collusion.  In the past, the Hong Kong people felt that rich people got their money through hard work.  Today, they are beginning to hate the rich people.

He believes that around the time of the Return, the emphasis was to keep the economic vitality of Hong Kong and therefore more attention was paid to the business interests instead of the middle-class and common people.  For example, most of the 800 electors are business people who used to monopolize the economic resources of Hong Kong and are now monopolizing the political resources.  During the colonial era, the Hong Kong governor looked after the interests of those business people and that part of the colonial administration has been retained.

This is a lesson that is worth learning and it can be used as reference.

But within the social environment in which the rich-poor gap is increasing, Hong Kong has provided a protective system that will enable the poor to survive with dignity.  Apart from the public housing system, there are medical protection, education protection, etc.  Society thus avoids instability.

Public housing in Hong Kong is a very successful experiment.  It guarantees the basic right to housing for the poor so that they have the opportunity to rise from the bottom of society to the top.  Yip Kwok-him had served as the chairman of the Housing Bureau which is in charge of public housing.  He said that when he was young, his family of seven persons lived in a room that was fewer than 20 square meters in area and they slept on triple-decker beds.

The current Secretary of Justice Wong Yan-lung also grew up in this environment.  Half of the residents in Hong Kong are not in the commercial housing market and they live instead in housing provided by the government such as public housing and low-rent apartments.  The poor people who account for 30% of the population live in "public housing."

The public housing estates look like enclosed factories from the outside, except that they are much taller (almost 20 stories high).  Since the "public housing estates" are constructed uniformly by the government, there are only three sizes: large, medium and small: the big ones have more than 20 square meters; the middle ones have 16.5 square meters; the small ones have 10 square meters or so.  Some families with three generations together and even families of eight persons live in these confined spaces.

When Yip Kwok-him was the chairman of the Housing Bureau, he spent one day a week in discussions from 830pm to 2pm.  "We approve 50,000 to 60,000 units a year.  At the peak, there were 70,000.  Now there are just over 20,000 per annum."

This type of security system even attracted mainlanders to come to Hong Kong to become 'poor people.'

In January this year, I came to Hong Kong to gather news about the phenomenon of "mainland pregnant women coming to Hong Kong to have their babies delivered."  I saw the long line at the Immigration Department of pregnant women applying to have their stays extended.

The child of Huang Guangda from Zengcheng (Guangzhou) enjoyed the medical benefits of Hong Kong as soon as he was born.  "The child had poor health after he was born.  The hospital was very responsible and they did not let him leave immediately.  For staying two days and three nights, we only paid HK$150.  If mainlanders were sick in the same way in Hong Kong, it would have cost HK$7,500."

The various welfare systems will apply to his son as he grows up: nine years of free education; HK$2,000 to 3,000 per annum in book subsidies; at the public hospitals, emergency treatment is HK$100, general practitioners/specialists charge HK$60 and hospital stay is HK$100 per day; if the child is staying alone in Hong Kong without the parents, he can get HK$1,930 in basic living subsidies and HK$1,280 in housing subsidies per month.  Thus, the child can receive more than HK$3,000 per month and that is more than the wages of most mainland workers.

On June 12, the next day after my interview with Yip Kwok-him, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong would be holding its general membership meeting.  The people of Hong Kong regard the DAB as a patriotic political party.  The DAB had 9,969 members before and there are more than 100 new persons applying for membership.  "By tomorrow we will become a 10,000-strong political party.  This will be the first 10,000-person political party."

In 1991, the Hong Kong Legislative Council first introduced direct elections and this brought certain "political parties" in existence.  These organizations have their own "party platforms" and "party leaders."

"We are a group which are born and raised in Hong Kong and we feel that we have a certain responsibility towards Hong Kong," said Yip Kwok-him.

Before the Return, the Hong Kong government officials were appointed by England under the <Hong Kong Royal Instructions>.  The local political parties could never have "the rulers as their aspired goal."  After the Return of Hong Kong, the SAR government is a political entity directly under the jurisdiction of the central government.  Article 15 of the Basic Law says: "The Central People's Government shall appoint the Chief Executive and the principal officials of the executive authorities of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region."  This article in the Basic Law precludes the existence of a "ruling party" in Hong Kong.

There are many social organizations that act as platforms for various industries, sectors and strata.  The citizens are used to relying on these social organizations to fight for their own interests and express their demands while avoiding politicization.  Therefore, the citizens are not enthusiastic about joining any political party.  The biggest organization in terms of membership size in Hong Kong is the Federation of Trade Unions and not some political party.

The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong is the largest party in the Legislative Council, but that does not mean that it will ever be a "ruling party."

Even so, there is a wide space for political parties to develop.  The political parties provide the organization, system and channel through which people from various social strata can participate in politics; they can reflect public opinion and monitor the government; they can be the cradle in which nurture political talents; etc.

On the first Monday after June.  The weather in Hong Kong was clear with some clouds.  During the rainy season, it was rare to have such nice weather.  I exited the MTR station at Causeway Bay and there was a legislator using his microphone to promote his own ideas.  Around there, various political parties or social organizations were actively soliciting donations.  The railings on the two sides of the streets were covered with promotional posters for the legislators from various political parties.

Unfortunately, I was not able to attend any election activities during this trip to Hong Kong.  So I can only read Qian Gang's interesting report:

These District Council election candidates used their microphones to repeat again and again just what they intended to do if elected.  For example, they would persuade the Transportation Authority to extend a certain bus route to a certain area; they would prevent real estate developers from demolishing a senior citizen center; they would protect an old tree located at a certain spot; etc.  The election was exciting as the one male and one female candidate fought toe to toe.  Towards the end, both candidates asked for "emergency help" and sent their campaign aides to knock on every apartment door to canvass votes.  In the end, the male candidate lost by a tiny margin in what was considered to be his home base.

On that night, I spotted the losing male candidate in the street.  It was around 11pm.  He was standing at a pedestrian safety island in the middle of the street.  This 50-year-or-so-old thin man used his microphone to say repeatedly: "Voters! Neighbors! I am XXX.  I lost in the District Council election by 64 votes.  I admit defeat.  But I will not rest.  In this district, I have served the neighbors for twenty years already.  I will continue to try to serve everybody!  I thank you all for your support!  I thank everybody, I thank everybody! ..."

The cool breeze was stirring his white hair and his voice had gone hoarse.  Even though there the pedestrians were thinning out, he stood there for a long time shouting at the tall buildings.  There was a time when we were the only two persons in the street.

This person who stood alone in the cold wind to thank the voters was the DAB vice-chairman Yip Kwok-him.  I asked him, "You had been a district councilor for more than ten years.  But the voters suddenly rejected you.  Why do you still want to keep doing this?"

The normally articulate Yip Kwok-him suddenly became emotional: "That was in 2003.  At the time, the political climate was very poor for the DAB.  It was not easy already to lose by only 64 votes.  I had been the district councilor since 1991 and I had a close relationship and a deep emotional bond with the voters.  This loss was due to the very abnormal political environment.  But I must repay them for supporting me.  I really treasure that."

He said that he spend two days walking around to cover the entire Central-West electoral district that time.