Author Archives: stefan-kuehner

What do Hong Kong children need to get through the 5th Coronavirus wave?

Appeared in Sing Tao Daily on 14 March 2022.

“Since the first Coronavirus cluster was reported in December 2019, few families with children in Hong Kong have managed to avoid the impact of economic lockdowns, travel restrictions, and school closures on their everyday lives. Despite a common perception that children have been barely affected by the global Covid-19 pandemic, the potential consequences of the public health measures on children’s well-being are particularly concerning due to their lifelong and irreversible character. Amongst others, children’s advocacy groups worldwide have highlighted the possible adverse and longstanding effects of threats to children’s mental health, an exacerbated learning crisis, and increased child poverty.

The normative framework of the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) enshrines opportunities for children to express their life experiences and share their views on growing up in different social environments. As part of an ongoing study funded by the Faculty of Social Sciences at Lingnan University, researchers have worked with selected primary and secondary schools to distribute an online survey among students aged between 10 and 12 years. This age range is commonly characterised as “middle childhood” and was chosen as it is widely understood as a stage when children start to spend more time away from their family and more time in school, with friends, and engaging in other activities in the community. Being forced to spend more time in lockdown and away from school may, therefore, risks interfering with the normal development not only of children’s academic ability but also of their identity and ability to form their own experiences of the world around them.

Specifically, the Covid-19 survey examines how Hong Kong children cope with the changing circumstances across different life domains, including their school life, time use, and relationship with family and friends during the Coronavirus pandemic. Although strictly preliminary and not fully representative of the Hong Kong child population at this point, the findings based on roughly 182 responses collected between October 2021 and January 2022 give some insights on how children in Hong Kong – beyond the immediate requirement to be shielded from possible infection – may be better supported to weather the storm of the recent outbreak of the Omicron subvariant of the Coronavirus disease.

Although none of the child respondents directly experienced an infection with the Coronavirus within their immediate family, almost half of the children (45.2%) reported that there were times when they had to be in their home all day because of the Coronavirus and had to be very careful because somebody in their immediate family was considered at high risk of getting very ill if they got infected with the Coronavirus (47.6%). More than one-third of children (37.6%) either “agreed a lot” or “totally agreed” that their relationships with friends were negatively affected during the Coronavirus, while more than half (55.0%) stated that they became closer to some members of their family. While most children received sufficient information about the Coronavirus through the daily news, social media, and family members, four out of ten (40.3%) children did not feel “fully protected” from the Coronavirus in Hong Kong. More than half (52.7%) “agreed a lot” or “agreed totally” that they are “very afraid” about the Coronavirus.  

Besides, around one-third of children (34.0%) were not satisfied with the changes in their student life because of the Coronavirus situation. More than one-third of children (36.1%) did not have their own room to study at home, and around one out of ten (10.2%) reported not possessing the necessary video equipment, such as cameras and microphones, for video classes. Moreover, more than half (53.0%) of children reported frequent problems with their Internet connection at home during online teaching. More than one-third of students did not fully agree that they could manage their learning time effectively (36.9%) and did not fully agree that they knew how to get help when they struggled to understand their online classes (40.3%). Indeed, close to half of the surveyed children (47.3%) did not agree that they successfully managed to continue learning from home. At the same time, around 3 out of 4 children (75.2%) “agreed a lot” or “agreed fully” that it was their responsibility as a student to learn what they need to know from online classes. It may not be surprising that many children in Hong Kong continue to describe their lives as very “stressful” under these circumstances.

It has been widely reported that Hong Kong families with children have faced additional financial pressures since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. According to our findings, only around 4 out of 5 children (79.7%) reported that they “always” had enough food to eat during this period. No less than two out of ten children (22.4%) stated that they are “very worried” about the financial situation of their family since the Coronavirus outbreak – i.e., on a scale from 0 (“not at all worried”) to 10 (“very worried”). When asked how happy they are with their overall life during the Coronavirus period, around 2 out of 10 children (18.9%) reported that they are “not happy at all” – again measured on a scale from 0 (“not happy at all”) to 10 (“completely happy”). 

It is worth stressing again that the above data were collected before the onset of the 5th Coronavirus wave in Hong Kong. The timing of data collection raises concerns that some of the pressures that Hong Kong children have faced may only be bound to worsen in the weeks and months to come. It also suggests that listening carefully to the voices of Hong Kong children should become more, rather than less, important in designing an effective strategy to deal with the indirect social impacts since the arrival of the Omicron variant in Hong Kong. Boosting employment opportunities for parents, providing effective after school services for children, and cash and in-kind support for e-learning at home (including IT equipment, IT literacy, etc.) remains a top priority for the Hong Kong government amidst the 5th wave of the Coronavirus pandemic.”

Dealing with “Covid social risks” requires social innovation as part of Hong Kong’s crisis response

Appeared in Sing Tao Daily on 6 September 2021.

Please follow the link for the full article.

“For centuries, governments worldwide have been preoccupied with helping citizens absorb various risks and contingencies that threaten their livelihoods and well-being. In response to these social risks, governments have taken on more responsibility to provide for basic needs and promote more cohesive, productive, and sustainable progress of societies. Most recently, the global Covid-19 pandemic presented a critical public health crisis. But, at the same time, societies across East Asia have also been witnessing a related wave of complex socio-economic changes that produced a new set of social risks. In a recent research project with colleagues from Taiwan and South Korea, I have labelled them as “Covid social risks”, broadly falling in five critical areas: physical health, employment and income, skills and knowledge, care, and social relationships.

First and foremost, the risk of sudden job loss has risen amidst Covid-19 due to strict
lockdown and social distancing measures. Many workers and salaried employees had no choice but to take unpaid leave due to closing businesses or heightened care responsibilities in the home. Even if they managed to retain a job, many individuals experienced a substantial loss of income, for instance, due to reduced working hours.
Related to these employment and income risks, some workers experienced a sudden shock as markets no longer required specialised skills, e.g., aeroplane pilot or a travel guide. The pandemic also exacerbated this knowledge crisis since it hindered children’s educational progress due to school closures and the adoption of online learning. In Hong Kong, more than three out of four parents of kindergarten and primary school students raised concerns about their children’s online learning progress.i
Social distancing and lockdown measures created uncertain care burdens as parents,
particularly women, faced the need to care for their children or family members at home as schools and social service facilities closed due to infection concerns. The increased care burden has been particularly striking for single parents or households with family members with long term care needs.

Finally, the general public also faced psychological stressors, such as the disruption of
regular routines and separation from family and friends, which triggered different negative psychosocial responses, including anxiety, stress, and even depression. Researchers discovered similar patterns in previous crises, but the current decline in mental health in Hong Kong is particularly alarming. For example, a recent paper for the academic journal Psychiatry Research suggests that 65 per cent of Hong Kongers reported poor mental health due to increased loneliness during the Covid-19 pandemic.ii

The above “Covid social risks” are potential threats to all. Yet, the intensity of experiencing them varies across different societal groups. Take me as an example: once Lingnan University switched to online, and later hybrid, instruction due to the health concerns for our students, I found it relatively easy to complete my daily tasks in the home environment. I found myself as part of a privileged group of salaried employees that could convert face-to-face jobs with the help of the latest digital networking and teleconferencing software.

Consequently, my working hours and income were hardly affected. Naturally, not everyone was in the same lucky position. Essential workers were unlikely to
lose their jobs in the pandemic since they provided vital goods or services needed in daily life. Yet, their occupations were not suitable for being transformed into non-face-to-face work, meaning there was a higher possibility for them to suffer from infection with Covid-19. Indeed, service and sales workers were among the ‘frontline’ occupation groups with the most Covid-19 incidences in Hong Kong and elsewhere in East Asia. Other groups of ‘essential’ workers that suffered a similar fate were healthcare workers, drivers and transport workers, cleaning and domestic workers, and public safety workers.iii

It is now well-known that the pandemic most severely hit the Hong Kong accommodation, food, and entertainment sectors. However, even within these industries, service and sales workers faced the highest risk of unemployment without any fault of their own. Despite the Hong Kong government’s provision of economic stimulus and wage subsidies through the newly introduced Employment Support Scheme (ESS), Hong Kong experienced an increase in the number of low-income households. According to official Government statistics, the total number of Hong Kongers receiving financial support through the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) increased by merely 5,000. This suggests that the Hong Kong
social safety net was ill-prepared to cater for many individuals affected by the Covid-19

How, then, should the Hong Kong government respond to newly emerging “Covid social
risks”? How should it alleviate the rising inequality between the different groups of society that were affected so differently throughout the local Covid-19 outbreak?
We still have much to learn. Yet, besides the need to strengthen the existing social safety net and active labour market policies, Covid-19 taught us that more bottom-up social policy initiatives are required. Notably, such approaches will focus on families, schools, and communities as they are crucial in solving the social care, social relationships, and skills retention crises. In addition, the Covid-19 mitigation phase in Hong Kong requires diversity and creativity that is most commonly associated with the notion of “social innovation.” Consequently, the Hong Kong government should facilitate co-production and collaborative governance that engages citizens directly. A successful and forward-looking Covid-19 response in Hong Kong and East Asia cannot rely solely on the lessons from the past.”

i Lau, E. Y. H., & Lee, K. (2020). Parents’ views on young children’s distance learning and screen time during COVID-19 class suspension in Hong Kong. Early Education and Development, 1-18.
ii Tso, I. F., & Park, S. (2020). Alarming levels of psychiatric symptoms and the role of loneliness during the COVID-19 epidemic: A case study of Hong Kong. Psychiatry Research, 293, 113423.
iii Lan, F. Y., Wei, C. F., Hsu, Y. T., Christiani, D. C., & Kales, S. N. (2020). Work-related Covid-19 transmission in six Asian countries/areas: a follow-up study. PloS one, 15(5), e0233588.

The International Survey of Children’s Well-Being shows Hong Kong children are stressed and dissatisfied with how they use their time

Appeared in Sing Tao Daily on 8 June 2020.

Please follow the link for the full article (in Chinese).

“Researchers from the School of Graduate Studies and the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at Lingnan University took part in the third wave of the International Survey of Children’s Well-Being (ISCWeB), which joined research teams from 35 countries and territories around the globe. For Hong Kong, the research surveyed 10- and 12-year old children from 17 primary and 16 secondary schools, which were chosen randomly from a list of non-special primary and secondary schools. The resulting representative sample captures the voices of 1,522 Hong Kong children and adds to a unique international data set, which includes the views of close to 129,000 children in total.

The international data shows that Hong Kong is generally low in the international rankings of children’s well-being. Nevertheless, there are some areas where Hong Kong children excelled, including their relationships with friends and classmates. The surveyed Hong Kong children also, on the whole, felt safer at school and in their communities than their peers in other East Asian societies such as South Korea and Taiwan. At the same time, however, Hong Kong children considerably lagged behind internationally in terms of their views on their appearance, as well as their feeling of being listened to by their parents, teachers, and other adults in their communities. Not least, the new data is confirmation, yet again, that children in Hong Kong are stressed and dissatisfied with how they use their time. 

A look at some of the baseline figures presents findings that may not be too surprising at first glance. More than one in two Hong Kong children reported that they spent time doing homework or studying (53%) and using social media (51%) every day when they are not at school. A majority of Hong Kong children also stated that they watch TV (43%) or play electronic video games (37%) every day. Compared to these figures, only around one-in-three (34%) Hong Kong children reported that they have time to rest, while around one-in-four (26%) said that they spend time relaxing, talking or having fun with their family every day. A majority of Hong Kong children further reported that they spend their time helping around the house (34%), playing or spending time outside (32%), playing sports or doing exercise (29%), or doing extra classes or tuition when not at school (24%) much less frequently (‘only once or twice a week’).  

The research also finds that the proportion of children who rated their overall satisfaction with how they use their time outside of school as very low stood at 12% (on a scale from 0-10). This figure is higher compared to other East Asian societies such as Taiwan (10%) and South Korea (8%), and particularly high compared to most Western nations. In Finland, for example, only 2% of surveyed children rated their satisfaction with how they use their time as very low. While half of all 10-year-olds in Finland stated that they are ‘totally satisfied’ with how they use their time (50%), the corresponding figure in Hong Kong stood merely at one-in-four (25%).

Given the above findings, it may also not be surprising that more than one-in-four (27%) Hong Kong children reported very low agreement with the statement that they feltcalm over the last two weeks (on a scale from 0-10). More worryingly still, almost half (49%) of Hong Kong children reported a high agreement with the statement that they felt stressed over the last two weeks. In addition, a total of 15% of all surveyed 12-year olds in Hong Kong reported very low agreement with the statement that they are good at managing their daily responsibilities. Not least, less than one-in-four children fully agreed that they have enough choice about how they spend their time (23%).

Again, it is through international comparison that we can see how exceptional some of these figures genuinely are. While the share of Hong Kong children who reported that they are stressed frequently is comparable to those in Taiwan (46%) and South Korea (46%), the reported figures in countries such as France (37%), Finland (30%) and Norway (28%) were considerably lower. Only about 4% of all twelve-year-olds in Finland and Norway, and about 10% in Germany, Taiwan and South Korea, disagreed that they are good at managing their daily responsibilities. Whether one-in-three (South Korea and Germany), two-in-five (Finland and Taiwan), or one-in-every-two children (Norway), the agreement with the statement that they have enough choice about how they spent their time was considerably higher in all of these international cases compared to Hong Kong.

The question of how Hong Kong children use their time has been the subject of high profile advocacy campaigns from international organisations in the past. At the same time, researchers have amassed more and more evidence that demonstrates that children’s dissatisfaction with their time use, their negative feelings of stress, and their perceived lack of autonomy in making choices about how they may use their time are significant factors in explaining children’s overall life satisfaction and psychological well-being. The fact that Hong Kong children are still falling behind their peers in other parts of the world in all of these regards suggests that the Hong Kong government, together with parents and other stakeholders, should reconsider this issue seriously. A new strategy is needed to device a holistic and culturally sensitive policy approach by which Hong Kong children may finally be able to join the mainstream of the international community.”

Hongkongers’ attitudes to work and welfare

Appeared in Sing Tao Daily on 23 December 2019.

Please follow the link for the full article (in Chinese).

“Since the beginning of the recent events starting in June 2019, analysts have highlighted a range of deep-seated problems of Hong Kong society in search of a plausible explanation. Indeed, many different claims have been made, but the hard empirical evidence that these claims are based on has at times been elusive. There is undoubtedly a need to invest in additional efforts to collect new scientific data to capture the voices of all Hong Kong people better. Yet, at the same time, social scientists should also be encouraged to make better use of already existing statistics.

Take for example the World Values Survey [1] study, which for several decades (1981-2014) has produced internationally comparable data on the public’s attitudes to work and welfare across dozens of societies around the globe. Hong Kong has not been a part of this landmark study for its entire duration. But still, thousands of Hong Kongers were surveyed in the latest two rounds (2005-2009 and 2010-2014), making the World Value Survey an intriguing resource, which so far has been largely unexplored in the public discourse.

What can it tell us about Hong Kong people’s attitudes towards work, inequality and the role of government? Is it true that there has been widespread discontent with the way the government of the Hong Kong SAR has been handling issues of rising inequality and concerns of Hongkongers about their financial situation? 

First, when we look at Hong Kong people’s attitudes towards work, the data tells us that a considerable majority of Hong Kong people considers work to be of the utmost importance in their lives: more than three in four respondents (75%) stated that work is either “very” or “fairly important”. This figure is, thereby, higher among young people (up to 29 years of age) compared to older age groups. Not least, a similar majority of Hong Kong people (73%) continued to lean towards the understanding that in the long run, hard work brings success (as compared to success being merely a matter of luck and personal connections). Again, this positive belief in hard work was higher among young people (up to 29 years of age) compared to older age groups.

What is more, 58 per cent of Hong Kong people suggested that income differences between the richest and poorest should become larger in order to create more incentives for individual effort. This finding is certainly surprising, given the already alarming inequality in Hong Kong to date, but it is also not too different from other East Asian societies, such as Singapore (55%), Taiwan (58%), and South Korea (67%). At the same time, the notion that competition is good because it stimulates people to work hard and develop new ideas was shared by no fewer than 80 per cent of Hong Kongers according to the data. 

Rather than suggesting a major dissatisfaction, the above findings may highlight that Hong Kong people continue to be mostly content with the status quo of the city’s welfare policies. As a residual welfare model, Hong Kong has long emphasised the minimal role to be played by the government in providing welfare to citizens. Instead, what protection is provided in Hong Kong is predominantly targeted and selective, stressing engagement with the labour market and the deservingness aspect of welfare. The system is designed to ensure that government subsidies, or ‘sweeteners’ as they are often characterised, are not overly generous and will not encourage individuals to become dependent or disincentivize work. As a developmental or productivist model, Hong Kong’s welfare policy, including its welfare system, is regarded as subordinate to the larger goal of promoting economic growth, and as such is designed to foster said economic growth.

However, there is also some evidence within the data provided by the World Values Survey that some ‘cracks’ may have been appearing in the Hong Kong people’s agreement with the above principles.  

For instance, although only around 40 per cent of respondents stated that government should take more responsibility to ensure that everyone is provided for, this figure neared the 50 per cent mark if we only consider the youngest respondents up to the age of 29. In other words, around half of all young people in the survey were in favour of an extension of welfare policy in Hong Kong. If young people were to be asked specifically about the government’s responsibility to provide decent housing, the share would likely be much higher. 

Hong Kong people also voiced a strong opinion that state aid for the unemployed is essential (63% of respondents leaned towards this option), and slightly more Hong Kong people ‘disagreed’ rather than ‘agreed’ that it is humiliating to receive money without working: 25% of the unemployed disagreed, while 22% agreed; 37% of self-employed disagreed, while 26% agreed. Welfare stigma, i.e. the shame, prejudice, and lack of dignity involved in claiming benefits, continues to present a critical barrier to government strategies to alleviate poverty, but a significant share of Hong Kong people are now more accepting of their financial needs and seemingly more willing to attribute them to external forces, rather than regarding them as a sign of personal failure. 

Finally, and maybe most importantly, on a scale of 0 to 10 (where 10 denotes the highest level of agreement), a total of 62 per cent of Hong Kong people were leaning towards answering the question whether it is ever justifiable to claim welfare benefits to which one is not entitled to in the affirmative. By contrast, only 6 per cent of Hong Kong people stated that is never justifiable to claim benefits to which one is not entitled to, compared to roughly 35 per cent in Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and even 63 per cent in Japan. To further put these figures in context, no fewer than 93% of Hong Kong people stated that it is never justifiable to cheat on taxes. 

That Hong Kong people should demonstrate such low civic attitudes when it comes to claiming benefits should give the Hong Kong government pause, since it may suggest that many Hong Kongers have very low expectations of ever receiving any meaningful support by the government in times of hardship. Considered in this perspective, the strong ideology around self-reliance, individual-based incentives that most Hong Kong people profess, may at least in some cases be down simply to necessity, rather than a heartfelt belief in the virtues of a strong work ethic. It may also be indicative of a feeling among at least some Hong Kongers that they have been left ignored and unattended in fending off the consequences of a rapidly changing economy in Asia’s leading global city.”

[1]Inglehart, R., C. Haerpfer, A. Moreno, C. Welzel, K. Kizilova, J. Diez-Medrano, M. Lagos, P. Norris, E. Ponarin & B. Puranen et al. (eds.). 2014. World Values Survey: Round Six – Country-Pooled Datafile Version: