What does it mean to be middle class?

What does it mean to be middle class?

Li Xueying
The Straits Times, March 11, 2013

The people of Hong Kong had a good laugh two weeks ago when Financial Secretary John Tsang asserted that he understands well the worries of the middle class – being a member of it himself. The next day, Tsang, who earns HK$302,205 (US$38,957) a month and lives rent-free in a government house at the Peak, generated more derisive mirth as he sought to clarify his statement. What defines the middle class is not so much one’s income but lifestyle, he said.

“I have read articles that say the middle class are people who drink coffee and like French movies. I like movies and tea, so there’s not much difference (in my life) with the lives of the middle class.”

Tsang has a tin ear. Beneath the sniggers was a bitterness over how middle class status – and its entitlements – seems to be slipping many Hong Kongers by.

The Economist magazine, in a report in 2009, characterised the middle class as having a reasonable amount of discretionary income. Diana Farrell of the McKinsey Centre for Government defined it as beginning at the point where people – after paying for basic food and shelter – have a third of income left for consumer goods, health care and education.

In Singapore, there is no official definition, although two National University of Singapore academics, who published a study on the subject last November, defined the middle class as those whose household income falls between S$2,001 and S$5,000 – 40 per cent of the citizen population.

But other criteria – including yes, lifestyle – hold sway as well. In Hong Kong, they include, besides income, accumulated wealth (such as assets like property), social status and lifestyle, says Professor Francis Liu, head of economics at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
With the economy today latched to the mainland, one key way of moving up the ladder is to tap the burgeoning Chinese market – from finding ways to supply milk powder to mainland mothers, to seeking business opportunities in the rising Pearl River Delta.

But few want to. A recent survey of post-1990s youth found that 60 per cent are unwilling to work or study on the mainland. Says Hong Kong University sociologist Hayes Tang: “They are less pragmatic. Emotionally they are less attached to – even against – the Chinese identity. Some want the British National Overseas passport which can enhance their cultural status, but is less useful than the Hong Kong Chinese passport for travelling without visa.”

In that sense, he adds, the local identity may pose a “structural obstacle” for the younger generations in becoming socially mobile.

So that leaves lifestyle.

That, by contrast, is relatively easy to attain. HK$100 buys one a middle class night at the movies with a Starbucks latte in hand.

The Dynamics of Executive-Legislative Discord in Hong Kong: Conflict, Confrontation and Adaptation

Full Text of the Paper

Professor Sonny S.H. Lo
The Hong Kong Institute of Education

Mr. Dennis Ka-Kuen Leung
The Chinese University of Hong Kong


Executive-legislative relations in Hong Kong have been transformed from harmony during the British colonial era to a far more conflict-ridden and confrontational mode after the handover of the British territory to the People’s Republic of China on July 1, 1997. The conflict-ridden relations between the executive branch of the government and the legislature have worsened since the introduction of more directly elected members to the Legislative Council. The confrontational relationships have been compounded by the mutual distrust between the government and the pan-democratic forces, and between the pro-establishment camp and the pan-democratic front. Exacerbating the political impasse is the partially reformed political system in Hong Kong, where the Executive Council is filled with pro-establishment elites without co-opting a few directly elected democrats. As a result of the politics of exclusion and the patronage nature of the political appointees system that was introduced into Hong Kong in July 2002. The media criticisms of the personal integrity and performance of a few appointees have delegitimized the Hong Kong administration under the leadership of the new Chief Executive C. Y. Leung. Without a more drastic overhaul of the Hong Kong political system, especially in the form of appointing representatives of the pan-democratic camp into the top-policy Executive Council, executive-legislative relations are bound to be conflict-ridden, confrontational and controversial, albeit the government will continue to adapt to the politicized circumstances and respond to public demands in a more pluralistic manner.

Problems of Governance and Political Leadership in Hong Kong by Professor Sonny Lo (2012)

Problems of Governance and Political Leadership in Hong Kong


Call for Papers: The 8th Annual Conference of The Asian Studies Association of Hong Kong (ASAHK)

Why are Hong Kongers so unhappy?

Why are Hong Kongers so unhappy?

Li Xueying, The Straits Times

August 29 2012

In Hong Kong, there are nine Fortune Courts, four Rich Courts and three Wealthy Courts – mostly built in the 1980s and 1990s.

In more recent years, in vogue are projects named after overseas locations: Residence Bel-Air, La Maison Du Nord, Sunrise Cannes.

Any marketing student knows that in selling anything, it is essential to pitch it to the aspirations of one’s clientele.So the shift in residential name fads may be a case of evolving aesthetic taste. But it also points to something deeper that has changed in Hong Kong.

A people who used to pride themselves on being go-getters, who believed they could become rich/wealthy/make their fortune if they put their minds to it, have become anxious that they can no longer succeed in Hong Kong. Far better, it seems, to dream of living in a paradise away from here.

According to the Global Barometre of Happiness, just four in 10 Hong Kongers said they felt happy, sending the territory to No. 42 on the list of 58 polled. The most recent survey, the Happy Planet Index, had Hong Kong at No. 102 among 151 – the lowest-ranked Asian entry. Singapore was the second-lowest, at No. 90.Such findings, together with a record number of protests – 6,878 last year – were probably what prompted Taiwanese writer Alice Yang to point to Hong Kongers’ “collective anxiety”.

Her article in the Yazhou Zhoukan, noting the same trend in Taiwan, Singapore and the mainland, was cited by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday, as he spoke of how the anxiety is due to the “Four Asian Dragons” searching for a new development path after an era of rapid growth.

Hong Kongers are down in the dumps for a variety of reasons.

Material success – and having more of it compared with one’s peers – has always been key to happiness in Hong Kong, noted Hayes Tang, a sociologist from Hong Kong University (HKU).

But this Hong Kong dream is being thwarted by structural obstacles, most notably the dominance of vested property and banking interests in the economy, and by extension their hold on the government, given that half its revenue comes from land sales.

On a more visceral level is Hong Kongers’ sense of powerlessness over their destiny. Delays in implementing universal suffrage have deepened this angst, as has having to adjust to being “just another southern Chinese city”.A new path for Hong Kong means fixing all these various issues. There are no easy answers: For instance, would Hong Kongers give up their status as the world’s freest economy to prevent foreigners from buying their homes? Would they pay higher taxes to shake off the shackles of the property developers?

Chinese leader makes appearance, temporarily dashing hopes for speculative headlines

Chinese leader makes appearance, temporarily dashing hopes for speculative headlines
Cain Nunns, September 15, 2012

TAIPEI, Taiwan — China’s so-called invisible man and presumed leader in waiting Xi Jinping shrugged off Western media speculation about a possible stroke, assassination attempt, a bitter internal power struggle and a host of other B-movie conspiracy theories when he made his first public appearance in two weeks today.

State-run Xinhua news agency ran a brief report saying Vice President Xi “arrived at China Agricultural University Saturday morning for activities marking this year’s National Science Popularization Day.”

As is often the case in the opaque world of Chinese politics, there was no mention of why he had been sidelined since his last public appearance on Sept. 1. Since then, the 59-year-old son of Communist Revolution royalty has canceled meetings with visiting US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, along with dignitaries from Singapore and Russia.

The official explanation was that he had suffered a back injury and needed time to recuperate. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said Xi’s cancelation of the Clinton meeting should not raise “unnecessary speculation.”

But unnecessary speculation was raised anyway, as foreign media began reporting on rumors (or perhaps starting them) that more sinister elements were at play.

“Chinese politics at the top is often like palace politics — typical of dynastic secrecy,” wrote Lo Shiu Hing, a Chinese political expert at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, in an email to GlobalPost.

“Journalists are prone to grasp any rumor so as to guess what happened with Xi,” Lo said. “Palace politics in China versus relatively more transparent politics in the US explains this strange situation. Also, political sensationalism can attract the world’s attention. Using rumors to report on Xi was a natural and an irresistible tendency.”


Reacting to the foreign influx

Reacting to the foreign influx

More people are crossing borders to live and work in another country. While they might help plug gaps in their host countries’ labour force, their presence in large numbers can also be a strain on public resources and trigger local resentment. Governments have responded in various ways, and some have cut back on rights for foreigners, as The Straits Times’ correspondents found.

By Li Xueying, The Straits Times, 2 Jun 2012

Subscribers of The Straits Times can view the original report in full at http://www.straitstimes.com/Insight/Story/STIStory_806422.html

BRITISH-BORN Alex Lombardo, 46, has called Kuala Lumpur his home for six years. He has long got the hang of local lingo like ‘alamak’, mastered fiery sambal belachan and last year, settled down with his Malaysian wife, a freelance writer.

But when the couple went shopping for an apartment, Mr Lombardo, who is also a writer, found that he would have to hew to a new restriction: Like all foreigners, he can buy only more expensive property valued at at least RM500,000 (S$205,000) – up from RM250,000 two years ago.


Across the Causeway, something similar is brewing. Over the past year, Singapore has been sharpening the distinctions between citizens, permanent residents (PRs) and non-resident foreigners, in response to growing disgruntlement among Singaporeans over the influx of foreigners.

In recent months, this stance has extended from education (priority will be given to Singaporean pupils enrolling in Primary 1) to entry to tourist attractions (Singaporeans will pay $20 to enter the new Gardens by the Bay; foreigners $28).

Across the world, other governments are taking steps in the same direction.

In Australia, for instance, non-citizens have seen their entitlements, particularly access to health benefits and social security, shrink. From the late 1990s, PRs have had to wait two years before they can claim unemployment benefits. There is also a 10-year wait for disability handouts.

Globally, more people are crossing borders – an estimated one in every 35 people at the beginning of the 21st century was an international migrant. At play are two factors: globalisation, propelling labour to follow the flow of capital and goods; and demographics, which has forced countries with ageing labour forces to open their doors to foreigners.

But this also has domestic populaces baulking at the increased strain that public resources are coming under. In Britain, for instance, public housing is open to all, including foreigners. There are no restrictions, so long as they fulfil needs-based criteria such as low income levels, and are legally settled.

But with five million people on the waiting list, the scheme is now under debate, with Mr Frank Field, a senior MP from the opposition Labour Party, preparing to table a Bill that gives priority to citizens.

Hong Kong has also seen a reversal in a specific area in recent weeks following the election of Chief Executive-elect Leung Chun Ying. Traditionally liberal in extending public services to foreigners, whether PRs or non-PRs, Hong Kong – bowing to public pressure – will next year ban mainland Chinese mothers from giving birth there unless they are married to a local.

Currently, they are entitled to do so, with their babies reaping benefits such as permanent residency, subsidised health care and free education.

This has given rise to what sociologist Hayes Tang of the University of Hong Kong describes as ‘the discontent of Hong Kongers that mainlanders enjoy the benefits at the expense of Hong Kong taxpayers’.

‘Culturally, the different habits of mainlanders and Hong Kong residents also pose some ‘cultural shock’ to Hong Kongers, whose public space has been transformed due to the large number of mainland tourists and migrants in Hong Kong,’ he adds.

In Japan for instance, where only 1.5 per cent of the 128 million population are foreigners, the latter enjoy privileges similar to the locals. Foreigners can enrol in the national medical insurance scheme and pay only 30 per cent of medical bills, just like the Japanese. They are also allowed to buy property of any sort, even land.

China, which also has minuscule benefits for its 600,000 foreigners, is also mulling over giving them more, as part of overall efforts to attract foreign talent. In April, a Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security spokesman said it will provide ‘effective social security to an increasing number of foreigners who stay permanently and enable them to enjoy equal treatment’. He did not give details.