Daily Cloudt: Hong Kong Occupy Wall Street – Mind the (Poverty) Gap, 18.10.11

Comment for Naomi Wolf’s Daily Cloudt (now defunct).

Over 300 ‘Occupy Hong Kong’ activists gathered at the city’s Stock Exchange on Saturday, October 15th. In a city of 7 million, the turnout surpassed expectations as demonstrators fought to raise awareness of the territory’s shamefully high income disparity. From the outside, it would seem that Hong Kong escaped the worst of the financial crisis – personal US$700 bail-outs are being offered to all residents, families in public housing are enjoying free rent for 2 months and the government is even subsidising electricity bills. However, beneath the Tiger Economy’s glittering skyline, hailed as the world’s freest economy and its third most favoured tax haven, the ex-British colony also sports the region’s widest poverty gap.

The UN Gini Coefficient rates Hong Kong society as the most unequal amongst all highly developed economies with the wealthiest 10% of the populace controlling more than a third of the city’s income. Meanwhile, an estimated 5,000 people live in 15sq foot ‘cage homes’. These squalid shoebox ‘coffins’ are often shared between a dozen occupants, subdivided with wire mesh. As well as boasting one of the highest population densities in the world, the territory’s property rental market is also the world’s most expensive. Incredibly, the poorest end up paying more per square foot than those in top-end lavish studios.

As well as creating more millionaires than any other country last year, the ‘Capital of Capitalism’ features the highest per capita ownership of Rolls-Royces in the world. Unfortunately, luxury cars are almost as ubiquitous as the elderly people forced to rummage through bins in search of items they can sell to recyclers. With a median income of just US$40 per month, these workers – usually old women – enjoy little in the way of welfare and often labour throughout the intensely humid summer months.

It is these ongoing injustices and the widening rich-poor deficit that motivated hundreds to congregate at Exchange Square in solidarity with the global ‘Occupy’ movement. Having dominated local news reports, individuals, unions, political parties and activist groups have since moved their tents, placards and resources to the HSBC headquarters in the heart of the business district. HSBC, whom many joke are the real centre of power in Hong Kong, has arguably profited from the international financial turmoil.

When G20 nations met in 2009, OECD countries named and shamed tax havens that did not comply with international standards of transparency. Chinese premier Hu Jintao managed to persuade his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, to exempt China’s highly autonomous SARs (Special Administrative Regions) from the blacklist. Corporations, many American, have since flocked to the Asian banking hub in order to escape tax obligations and transparency laws back home. The British ‘Tax Justice Network’, an NGO working to close tax loopholes, ranked the territory towards the higher end of its secrecy scale with a score of 73 out of a potential 100. It has recommended that the SAR must do more to “deter illicit financial flows… originating from tax evasion, aggressive tax avoidance practices, corrupt practices and criminal activities”.

Hong Kong remains a microcosm for the global problems highlighted by the ‘Occupy’ movement. Despite an ever-widening poverty gap, there has been little by way of reform or new regulation against the sector responsible for the meltdown. It is no coincidence that the city is almost solely reliant on the financial industry, yet the rich have continued to grow wealthier and the poor have become further impoverished. Banker bonuses have risen as inflation eats away at working family incomes.

A million Hong Kongers protested in 2003 during the Asian economic crisis and if another deep recession does indeed emerge in 2012, then the movement will be undoubtedly be galvanised both here and abroad. And as for Hong Kong’s poor, the hope which this new wave of resistance offers could not be more well-timed.