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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:

Social policy choices in Hong Kong in the ‘longue durée’

從「長時段(longue durée)」了解香港的社會政策選擇

Part of the Lingnanian Opinion Column for HKET. Please follow the link for the full article.

The related academic article is forthcoming in Social Policy & Society later this year.


  事實上,法語中的「longue durée」認定了一種特定的歷史研究方法,而這種方法越來越受社會政策研究員重視。它是一種「長期」記錄社會政策發展的嘗試,同時解釋到某些政策如何在特定的歷史背景下被推行的原因。










  儘管香港在老年收入保障和失業保障出現了大量的政策創新,我們的福利政策仍主要依靠入息審查制度,及具有低福利水平和嚴格的工作優先的特點。2000年推出的強制性公積金計劃,旨在長遠地減少社會對政府福利政策的依賴。然而,它引起了不少批評,如投資回報率低,及對低收入者的保護不足等。此外,本港的私人醫療開支,繼續佔整體醫療支出約50%,加上產假及公共育兒服務不足等問題,香港政策制定者正面對嚴峻的挑戰。而曾經是香港社會保障的標誌 ─ 公共房屋制度 ─ 亦正被收緊。




Social policy and evidence-based policymaking in Hong Kong

Appeared in Sing Tao Daily (in Chinese).

Please follow the link for the full article.

“Evidence-based policymaking” refers to situations in which policymakers inform their choices on how to reform public policies by carefully considering the empirical evidence produced by the academic community, NGOs, think tanks, and other stakeholders. It describes a policymaking model in which leaders carefully weigh the available evidence—e.g. on what should be considered a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ policy to enhance the well-being of Hong Kong people—without cherry-picking or being influenced by any preconceived assumptions or deeply-held personal beliefs.

However, proponents of evidence-based practice concede that a crucial question is what should be considered as “good practice” in regards to the production of empirical evidence. Admittedly, policymaking that is based on incomplete or incorrect data may potentially do more harm than good. This issue goes much deeper than contemporary concerns about the fidelity of information offered on social media and is right at the heart of the necessity to preserve and extend research excellence in the Applied Social Sciences.

Indeed, to raise the profile of academic disciplines such as Sociology, Economics and Psychology among policymakers and within our public policy discourse, efforts are needed to counter the narrative distinction between the so-called “hard” and “soft” sciences. Too often, the findings of research in the Applied Social Sciences are still being brushed aside by policymakers as not being rigorous, reliable, or transparent enough to incentivise a significant change of policy direction or to warrant a large-scale public investment.

As an academic field of inquiry that is similarly overlooked by policymakers in Hong Kong, Social Policy does not tend to dwell on scientific methods in depicting how it can better facilitate evidence-based policymaking. Instead, its teachers and students tend to be much more comfortable in underling the particular subject of study, such as the institutions of social welfare and the co-production of social outcomes, its dominant concepts, such as need, poverty, health, inclusion, and well-being, or its historical identity as a separate subject containing distinctive journals, discourses, skills and knowledge.

Precisely because of the extensive experience of analysing critical contemporary social problems, it is Social Policy that has something to contribute to policymaking in our current challenging times.

Social science enquiry devoted to social welfare began back in the 19th century. The data for these early Social Policy studies were derived initially from administrative sources, such as by the 1832 Poor Law Commissioners in the United Kingdom, and then later by population data collected in the census and through the registration of births, deaths and marriages, for example for the Sanitary Inquiries by Edwin Chadwick in 1842. Similarly, Henry Mayhew’s journalistic case studies gave way by the end of the 19th century to surveys of the population, for example in Charles Booth’s extensive studies of the London poor and the more systematic study of the poor by Seebohm Rowntree in York in 1899. The Liberal reforms of the early 20th century, which represented the emergence of the modern welfare state in the United Kingdom were also based on administrative and survey data.

After WW2, when Social Policy grew as an academic subject, the quantitative empirical tradition continued. The data available to scholars have advanced steadily with the development of extensive government surveys and the growing academic Social Policy community, including those working in and exclusively on social issues in Hong Kong. To this day, the leading centres of Social Policy research locally, nationally, and internationally are engaged in state-of-the-art survey research or the secondary analysis of administrative data.

Thereby, the use of quantitative methods has changed enormously as a result of computers, analytical software and learning from a range of other more mathematical orientated disciplines. Social Policy research design have become more longitudinal, comparative, and even experimental, while the scope of analysis has become increasingly more sophisticated.

Naturally, there have always been distinguished historians working in Social Policy too. Sociologists have applied constructionist and interpretative methods to the field of social welfare research, and there has been a noticeable resurgence of historical case study methods using process tracing and other small-N multi-source methods. Qualitative methods, such as semi-structured interviews, observation and focus groups, are all employed in Social Policy analysis, often but not exclusively as precursors to the collection and analysis of quantitative data.

Governments all around the globe have sought innovative solutions to respond to the challenges inherent in globalisation and the rapid changes of contemporary social structures. Evidence-based practice can be instrumental in enhancing public trust in political institutions, which have been under intense pressure in Hong Kong.

In short, there has never been a better time for policymakers to listen carefully to what the Social Policy community has to contribute. Due to its rich experience in analysing contemporary social issues through the most rigorous scientific methods, Social Policy deserves more attention by leaders engaging in evidence-based policymaking.

At the same time, this also means that Social Policy researchers have to more readily embrace their role as contributors to the well-being of people and many sectors of society. This requires a willingness to put more thought into planning knowledge transfer activities that allow them to engage more diverse audiences and ultimately to generate concrete policy impact on the basis of their state-of-the-art research findings.

Is family income an adequate indicator to define poverty?


Part of the new Lingnanian Opinion Column for HKET. Please follow link for full article.

“What is poverty in Hong Kong?” Most readers, if asked this question, will likely think of situations where everyday people fail to secure a sufficient work income to enable them to secure food, appropriate shelter, or clothing. Internationally, the predominant understanding of poverty as an ‘absolute’ deprivation of material goods is based on the notion that people of all ages have essential needs to secure physical health in order to be able to successfully participate in social life. Typically, those emphasising the alleviation of ‘absolute poverty’ as a key goal for policy makers have argued in favour of a more residual approach to welfare policy, based on the conviction that its role should first and foremost be to provide a ‘basic safety net’ that no member of the community should fall below. The flip-side of this view is that only those people that can demonstrate to the government that they have severe physiological and or safety needs – typically via passing means- and asset tests of various social assistance programmes – can hope to receive government subsidies for themselves as well as their loved ones. 

Indeed, in Hong Kong the conditions for receipt of government subsidies is largely determined by claimants’ ability to demonstrate to the government that their household income falls below one of several poverty lines, which are reviewed annually in line with the movement of living standards. As such, using the measures of monthly household income, and using 50% of the median of the pre-intervention monthly household income to identify poor households, the current poverty line for a one-person household was set at HK$4,000 per month prior to taxes and social benefits, HK$9,800 for a two-person household, HK$15,000 for a three-person household, and so on, up to HK$22,500 for a six-person household. In this sense, the Hong Kong government does not use an ‘absolute’, but a ‘relative’ definition of poverty, which is based on the idea that people should be considered as ‘poor’ if they lack the minimum amount of income needed not only to meet essential universal and permanent physical and safety needs, but also if they fail to maintain a typical standard of living in Hong Kong society due to a lack material resources.

Using household incomes to determine poverty lines in this manner facilitates comparisons of how poverty alleviation targets are met over time and has become the international gold standard across rich societies in the world. As such, the official Hong Kong government statistics suggest that in 2017, 23.1% of children aged 0-17, 13.7% of the working age population, and 44.4% of elderly were not able to meet the relative poverty threshold without government assistance. However, it is preferable to consider ‘relative poverty’ levels after receipt of government subsidies since this better reflects the actual poverty situation faced by households in Hong Kong. Indeed, the poverty figures for each of the above population groups diminish significantly once the effect of the ‘social safety net’ is taken into account – 17.5% for the 0-17 years old, 10.4% for the 18-64 years-old, and 30.5% for the over 65 years old – but remain high in comparison to other rich societies around the world. Not least, these are record numbers in Hong Kong suggesting that overall 1 in 5 people are considered poor. As the Hong Kong government strives to find ways to reduce the number of ‘poor’ residents further, should it continue to predominantly rely on measures derived on the basis of family income?

Admittedly, this may sound like an overly technical and yes, ‘academic’, question, but the implication of the choice of preferred poverty measurement by the Hong Kong government are significant. Some voices have argued for an extension of the ‘relative poverty’ measurement since a measure of poverty that is purely based on a percentage of median household incomes tells us nothing about the level of resources needed to avoid social exclusion. This is particularly true for a society like Hong Kong’s where living costs, especially due to spiralling housing costs, have increased at a rapid pace in recent years. Hence, it has been argued that the Hong Kong government should place greater attention to the cost of things, or the level of resources needed to avoid social exclusion.

Here, it may be useful to consider a few more questions. First, should we consider working adults as being ‘poor’ if they have enough money to afford three meals per day, but not enough to own a smart phone or transport to commute to work on a daily basis? Surely, Hong Kong people in the past did not have access to smart phones, so how can this suddenly be considered as a valid criterion for whether such a person should receive government subsidies or not? Similarly, should we consider a child as living in poverty in Hong Kong today, if it has a properly fitted school uniform, but fails to have access to his/her own personal computer or own desk to study at home? How about an elderly person that may benefit from public housing, but cannot afford to eat meat and hand out ‘pocket money’ on national holidays? Should these examples be considered as describing instances of ‘life in poverty’ in Hong Kong?

It is easy to dismiss these people’s needs for support because they are not related to inherent physical needs – i.e. owning a smart phone is certainly not a matter of sustaining one’s physical health or even survival, neither is having an adequate space to study, or the ability to give presents. Yet, from the perspective of whether or not people in these situations are able to maintain a typical standard of living in Hong Kong, the answer is not so straightforward. What is more, a lack of these items/activities does not only help to raise the dignity of the lives of the people affected, but also – in the medium and longer term – is likely to have a positive impact on the Hong Kong economy as a whole.  

Consider for example that having access to a smart phone and to the internet is increasingly crucial for people not only stay in touch with their families, but also to look for available job vacancies, internships, and training programmes in the case of unemployment. Consider that not having access to a computer at home will make it extremely difficult for primary and secondary school children in today’s society to complete their daily homework assignments and lead to a significant disadvantage to achieve their full academic potential over the years. And finally, consider that not having the ability to participate in social gatherings is a particularly strong barrier for elderly Hong Kongers to live an active, more fulfilling, and healthy life?

But maybe it does not matter what we individuals think about these matters. And maybe, it does not even matter what politicians, experts, or commentators on social media have to say either? Recent research conducted in Hong Kong tells us that a firm majority of the public actually states that having access to these resources or being able to engage in these activities should be considered a ‘necessity’ to be a full member of Hong Kong society today. If we accept that ‘poverty’ stems from social relationships and is the consequence of social arrangements, not simply the consequence of where certain people are positioned on the overall distribution of household incomes, policy makers are well advised to recognise more encompassing intermediate needs of Hong Kong people even if they depend on changing cultural and socio-economic contexts.

The main issue, of course, is that these different notions of ‘poverty’ are closely connected to ideas of social justice and what it means to live in a fair society that is conducive to people’s overall quality of life and well-being. The design of social policies has an important role in addressing poverty, but the extent to which it will facilitate poverty alleviation will largely depend on the very notion among policy makers and other stakeholders about ‘what is poverty’ and ‘who deserves support, and ‘how much’ under different circumstances. Therefore, one important step towards more effective poverty alleviation in Hong Kong would be if the government started to include broader and more diverse measurements of poverty and particularly the voices of Hong Kong people in their routine reporting of poverty dynamics going forward.

Is Hong Kong meeting the ‘best interests’ of all its children?


Part of the new Lingnanian Opinion Column for HKET. Please follow link for full article.

Article 3 of the United Nations’ Convention of the Rights of the Child states that “in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration”. Few would disagree that childhood experiences have a profound affect not only on children’s current lives but also on their future opportunities and prospects. If some children in society systematically fall behind their peers in the core areas of their well-being, this should be regarded as a situation in need of urgent attention even if things are going well in other respects of economic and social development.

Indeed, writers across the Social Sciences have suggested that inequalities are much harder to justify if they prevent children from having a fair start to life. For instance, the Heckman equation, named after the popular American Economist and Nobel Laureate, suggests that public investment in educational resources for very young children aged below five promises particular ‘good value-for-money’ as it contributes positively to their early development of cognitive and social skills. If sustained by means of high quality education through to adulthood, such investments promise substantial gains to the economy by creating a more productive and valuable labour force.

Focussing on the positive freedoms of children and how their rights are being upheld in different contexts, the work of another Nobel Laureate and political philospher, Amartya Sen, argues that children’s chances to have a healthy start to live and access to high quality education to a large extent determines their capability to actively choose the lives that they have reason to value during childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Indeed, since the economic circumstances to which children are born into are beyond their own control, merit-based justifications of inequality and ‘just deserts’ are less likely to convince if we are considering children rather than adults.

In a recent discussion paper for the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), Stewart (2013:13) suggested “the societal consequences of inequality are very different if particular individuals move in and out of poverty or riches than if everyone stays in the same place in the hierarchy”[1]. In other words, persistent inequalities between the most advantaged and disadvantaged should be perceived as a case of ‘inequity’, i.e. a matter of fairness and social justice that governments and related stakeholders have a responsibility to address. This is particularly the case as far as children are concerned.

Although there is a strong economic and moral case to prioritise children in the distribution of scarce resources in society, the harsh reality is that few rich economies have so far managed to create truly “fair” circumstances for all its children. As such, international evidence has shown that students from the most disadvantaged families still tend to be more likely to be among the worst academic achievers than their peers from families with the highest socio-economic status.

Despite some positive overall gains, there remains a stubborn social gradient in healthy eating and physical activity in many rich countries meaning that children from the least advantaged family backgrounds continue to consume significantly less fruit and vegetables, and exercise less frequently for a total of at least 60 minutes per day as recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Not least, the least affluent children across rich economies are more likely to have very low life satisfaction, which is associated with multiple risk behaviors including bullying and being bullied at school[2].

There is a dearth of systematic empirical evidence that would allow us to very easily the extent to which the Hong Kong government manages to uphold the rights of its children compared with other rich economies around the globe. However, thanks to the Policy Innovation Co-ordination Office (“PICO”) (formerly the Central Policy Unit), which recently supported a cross-university research project on the Trends and Implications of Poverty and Social Disadvantages in Hong Kong, researchers are now in a position where they can begin to piece together the complex puzzle of child opportunities and prospects in Hong Kong.

Although preliminary, the data collected as part of this research suggests that children in Hong Kong have a much higher chance to be among the least affluent if they grow up in a single parent household or in a household with no working adult. This finding may not be surprising, but speaks to the inability of the social safety net in Hong Kong to protect children from less traditional households from falling way behind their peers in terms of their income.

The findings also suggest that rather than the level of education or combined salaries, it is the parents’ material deprivation that determines the likelihood for children to lack access to basic necessities, such as e.g. a personal computer or a place to study in the home. In other words, being born in disadvantaged circumstances still acts as a barrier for some children in Hong Kong to live the same life as commonly perceived as ‘normal’ by a majority of Hong Kong children.

Previous research has shown that the parents and grandparents in less affluent households in Hong Kong make considerable sacrifices to facilitate the best possible start in life for their children. However, what these findings stress is that there is a threshold below which these adult family members are no longer able to shield their children from the negative consequences of severe material adult deprivation in the households they grow up in.

Finally, there also appears to be a link between the material and mental well-being of children in Hong Kong. As such, it is a lack of access to basic child necessities that is more likely to cause very low life satisfaction and a disproportionately high frequency of mental health complaints, such as having problems sleeping, worrying a lot, having stomach and back pain, among Hong Kong children. These findings remain after controlling for their self-perceived family relationships, their connectedness to teachers, and even their experience of being bullied at school.

Much more work needs to be done to fully understand the various ways in which the determinants of well-being of the most disadvantaged children are interconnected. However, what appears clear is that family background continues to play a considerable role for the life chances of at least some of Hong Kong’s children. As long as the future opportunities and prospects of those Hong Kong children continue to be determined by the ‘lottery of birth’, it is difficult to argue that Hong Kong’s economic and social policies rise to the lofty ideals of the United Nations’ Convention of the Rights of the Child.

In order to more successfully meet the needs of all its children, the Hong Kong government is well-advised to subscribe to the policy advice of international bodies, which have argued not only that governments should strive to promote healthy lifestyles and improve the educational achievements of the most disadvantaged children, but also that the incomes of the poorest households with children need to be better protected. This may not be a popular view given recent statements by the Financial Secretary (Hong Kong), which were meant to dampen the hopes for more government profligacy in social protection moving forward.

Given the dearth of comparative data in Hong Kong, it is also important to invest in further systematic research to enable better monitoring and measurement of child well-being in Hong Kong and its neighboring societies in the Big Bay area. Data sets that track the development of Hong Kong children across multiple dimensions of child well-being and across different life stages promise to be particularly valuable for generations of local policy makers and other stakeholders. While there are very good reasons for the Hong Kong government’s recent emphasis on STEAM subjects and industries, it is equally important to recognize the continued role of the Social Sciences in better understanding and shaping the life chances of her children as the future pillars of society.

[1] Stewart, F. (2013) Approaches Towards Inequality and Inequity: Concepts, Measures and Policies. UNICEF Office of Research Discussion Paper. Florence, Italy: UNICEF Office of Research.

[2] UNICEF (2016) Fairness For Children: A League Table Of Inequality In Child Well-Being In Rich Countries. Innocenti Report Card 13. UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, Florence.