Time Out

HK Time Out Magazine: Mind the [Poverty] Gap, Column #24

Between 2009 and 2013, I contributed a short, light-hearted fortnightly political column to Time Out Hong Kong.

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Mind the Gap
Our city can boast many superlatives – most expensive housing rental market, largest collection of skyscrapers and highest per-capita orange consumption to name a few. One achievement to be more embarrassed about though, is the fact that the city of superlatives has the widest income gap of any other rich nation.

While Gini coefficients are by no means a perfect way of gauging equality, the UN measurement has shown a steadily broadening gap between rich and poor since the 90s. Financial crisis or not, Forbes magazine says HK’s richest are 65 per cent wealthier than last year, just as the poor have inevitably gotten poorer with 1.33 now living below the city’s poverty line.

Older residents who lived through the sixties know that folks can only be pushed so far before civil unrest emerges. The failure of ‘trickle down’ economics has not gone unnoticed by young people either. Even graduates are finding themselves stuck in their $18.94/hr jobs at KFC. They know they will not see the same job security as their parents, plus they’ve a billion or so mainlanders to compete against. Throw in a sense of powerlessness with a government offering little in terms of social welfare, and you have what the media dubs the ‘post-80s’ movement.

Despite political thinkers and NGOs warning of an inequality time bomb, the only gap our government will confess to a communication deficit. Tsang’s only response to young dissenters has been to admit that LEGCO is a bit crap with new media. Somehow, disillusionment with the rich political elite is down to them not being on Facebook and Twitter. Well Donald, we think you’re dreaming if you reckon the same old message sent via new technology will have any more impact. If deprivation is the parent of revolution and crime, our unelected leaders would be wise to bypass the tweeting and do a little more listening!

HK Time Out Magazine: Making Waves, Column #23

Between 2009 and 2013, I contributed a short, light-hearted fortnightly political column to Time Out Hong Kong.

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Making Waves
When it comes to international climate policy, HK is in the convenient position of being able to hide behind China’s developing country status and exemption from Kyoto Protocol cuts. Yet the most recent data suggests we produce a monstrous 29 tonnes per capita – more than the US or China and second only to Luxembourg. And as embarrassing as it is to lose to such a relentlessly bland country, this is not something HK should be getting competitive about.

One diamond is the rough is a certain Lucien Gambarota from a company called Motorwave. Lucien moved to HK from France in 1987 and has been tinkering with renewable energy technology for decades. Experimenting with wave, solar and wind power around the territory, Motorwave has even invented electricity-generating exercise bikes. Their own factory is going carbon-free and they’re hoping to make some small islands energy sustainable. Recently, Gambarota has been working with construction companies on the Kai Tak re-development, Hennessy Centre and at HKU to integrate thousands of his wind turbines into their building plans.

Certainly, HK Electric and CLP Power – reputed as one of the world’s dirtiest energy companies – need to take note and ditch their reliance on coal more quickly. However, there is unfortunately more to the figures than our own fossil fuel-based economy. Though we enjoy decent public transport, few factories and low vehicle ownership, much of our colossal domestic footprint is down to imports. When the built-in carbon cost of mainland goods and our high levels of consumption are considered, it is then when we see such huge per capita statistics.

Some green energy companies are definitely making waves, but our elephant sized carbon footprint will remain an elephant in the room until we see a campaign for austerity and challenge, rather than hide behind, the Motherland.

HK Time Out Magazine: Pet Abandonment, Column #18

Between 2009 and 2013, I contributed a short, light-hearted fortnightly political column to Time Out Hong Kong.

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Pet Abandonment
For two years I lived in the heart of the pet district on the cusp of affluent Ho Man Tin. Here I saw how, for many locals and expats alike, pets have unfortunately become semi-disposable fashion accessories and status symbols (big dog = big flat = big money!) Whether it’s the latest trend in exotic reptiles or dressed up designer puppies in pimped up prams, the pet market is booming in a city hardly suited to domestic animals.

It’s left to the government to destroy around 10,000 dogs and 4,000 stray and unwanted cats annually- all are put down within 3 days whilst stretched animal charities receive no state support. HK Dog Rescue particularly suffered during the recession, and what with the Pokfulam kennels landowner evicting the charity in February, it appears 200 more dogs may be destroyed unless homes are found or the government steps in (Read more or donate at hongkongdogrescue.com).

Meanwhile, the dumping of alien reptiles increased this year. The dinosaur-esque, 3-metre carnivorous alligator gar is one “eel-like fish” (complete with ‘double alligator jaws’) I’d prefer not to encounter on a dark night. Diminutive versions of this aquatic embodiment of Beelzebub can be purchased for $38 in Mongkok, but they grow quickly and are often dumped in public ponds where they play Pac-man with other unsuspecting pond dwellers. Piranha infestations, metre-long ball pythons and countless exotic lizards have also been discovered roaming free, presumably wondering which district of Nicaragua tropical Yuen Long is in.

In addition to a change in attitudes, a tightening of pet import, sales and ownership laws is overdue. Animal abandonment results in big fines, prison bouts and community service in the US and UK. Similar carelessness here gets you a comparatively dreamy fortnight in jail or a bargainous HK$2000 fine – less than the smoking penalty. It is time that greedy pet traders and ill-informed owners took responsibility, and anyone found liberating former pets should end up in a cage themselves!

HK Time Out Magazine: Taxing Times, Column #17

Between 2009 and 2013, I contributed a short, light-hearted fortnightly political column to Time Out Hong Kong.

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Taxing Times
Einstein claimed that the hardest thing to understand in the world is tax, yet even our most air-headed pseudo-model would grasp HK’s straightforward tax system. We’ve no sales, estate or currency tax, capital gains or VAT, and individuals pay 2%, 8% and 12% income tax progressively. Only the filthiest of the filthy rich (just 1.7%) pay the highest band of 17%. HK’s rates are relatively super low – it may just feel a lot because our demands arrive in one annual beating, such is the simplicity of our tax law. In fact, the entire ordinance stretches to just 200 pages and has barely changed in 60 years.

Pleasingly, the richest 8% (100,000 Peak-dwelling posh types – CEOs, lawyers, magazine editors etc…) contribute 57% of the total tax yield. Meanwhile, 60% of HK workers pay sod all – just as well since we’ve Asia’s widest poverty gap and no minimum wage. However, the tax burden distribution is shifting very slowly towards the less well-off with tax on the rich falling and talk of introducing a VAT – effectively an indiscriminate, indirect tax on the poor. Already public spending is around 10% lower than many similar countries at just 20% of GDP.

Furthermore, our low 17.5% corporate tax rate also makes us the world’s third most favoured tax haven. After the financial crisis made this tag a swearword, Hu Jintao ensured the SARs were excluded from a list of ‘uncooperative havens’ (hell, we’re not proper countries anyway right?). Any old corporate world-beater is still welcome to stash cash here to avoid tax – and they won’t be liable locally at all unless doing business within our borders.

Reform is overdue domestically to protect the vulnerable and we are under pressure to commit to international tax standards. Unfortunately, our prosperity and economy are based on some of the uglier elements of capitalism – lawmakers admit the tax system is ‘inherently inequitable’ and thus the rate of change is likely to be taxingly low.

HK Time Out Magazine: Electric Avenue, Column #16

Between 2009 and 2013, I contributed a short, light-hearted fortnightly political column to Time Out Hong Kong.

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Electric Avenue
What with our splendid public transport system and the high costs of parking, fuel, maintenance, licensing, insurance, registration and tolls, you’d think opting to drive would be the reserve of planet-loathing egomaniacs. And you’d not be wrong, as only 5.3% of Hong Kongers own a vehicle in this, a city built around the automobile.

The outdated Capital Works Reserve Fund ensures there is always cash set aside for never-ending road building projects, yet environmental ruin awaits unless we stand up to the private car owning elite. Praise was heaped upon the city when it finally embraced the electric car this month but unfortunately, this flawed scheme will not lead us to any transport revolution.

Firstly, electric cars will still receive their charge from our dirty coal power stations for decades to come, so they are not CO2 free, especially when manufacturing carbon costs are added. Also, the impractical 5-7 hours recharge time will put a strain on the grid and the driver’s patience. Betterplace.com has a solution whereby drivers do not own batteries but instead exchange dead ones at filling stations. Stations maintain battery banks connected to renewable sources and will have vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology installed to recycle unused power.

The other part of the solution is to quit pandering to the car-wielding minority in the first place, as the restrictions, costs and extravagance of private ownership only make it a more desirable status symbol. Even our filthiest, oldest double-deckers are ultimately greener than having would-be passengers driving electric vehicles. Therefore, we need an annual quota on licences, road pricing, an end to highway construction and funds redirected to cycle lanes, projects to clear the air for pedestrians and subsidies on certain bus routes. Along with a re-think on battery logistics for the few who actually need to drive, this will, collectively, put us in the right lane for a greener city.