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
pandemic.

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: http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSDocumentationWV6.jsp.

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.

不少人認為社會政策研究員應多參與知識轉移活動,因為這些活動能夠讓他們為當前的政策所面對的挑戰及困難提供解決方案。然而,社會政策研究的強項,往往在於其從宏觀的歷史角度出發,從「第三者的角度」監測社會的發展。

  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。

  在這種背景下,社會政策研究員經常會有一個疑問:為甚麼面對非常相似的問題時,不同政府往往會有不同的政策方案?

  以東亞地區為例,大多數評論家認為,該區的政策制定者正面對著一系列相同的內部和外部問題。就經濟而言,全球一體化和科技發展,已逐漸影響勞動人口,及加劇職業不平等的問題。在社會層面,家庭結構和家庭生活的變化,導致低生育率和加劇人口老化的問題。這些問題對公共開支造成巨大壓力,尤其是養老金、健康和社會支援的範圍。而有新證據顯示,公民對社會福利的期望愈來愈高,包括工資、縮短工時和改善就業保障等。就政府為兒童和老人提供良好居所和看護的角色,大眾期望的改變也是顯而易見的。這些問題都是在經濟增長率下降、技能和生產力差距擴大、以及環境限制的背景下所形成的。

  正如我最近一項與英國約克大學學者進行的研究顯示,在東亞,以公共政策應對社會問題的做法已變得普遍。然而,這些應對的細節仍然存在很大差異,不是僅僅描述目前的經濟和社會的變化就能解釋的。

以公共政策應對社會問題漸普遍

  值得留意的是,自2003年起,中國大陸實施了一系列新的社會政策項目,包括一些重要的健康、社會保障和就業政策改革,令到農民、內部遷徙的民工和城市居民受益。與此同時,中國大陸為所有農村和城市兒童推行免費教育,擴展新移民兒童的教育服務,以及加強低收入城市家庭的房屋福利。這些改變,使中國成為一個更具社會保護性的福利體系。

  事實是,中國並非唯一致力提升人民福祉的國家。韓國在2004年展開的一系列改革中,擴大了其教育體系,使低收入家庭的子女更容易接受高等教育。與此同時,韓國政府最近加強了公共租賃房屋制度,並大大延長了父母的產假,尤其是父親的。加上其於90年代推出的非供款型退休金計劃和就業保險制度,韓國已迅速成為促進整個亞太區社會發展的國際「典範」。

  其他看似是「不可能」會大幅發展社會福利的國家,也在社會決策中表現出相當大的改變。例如,一直面對經濟及人口老化問題的日本,仍然設法增加在公共醫療保健系統的公共投資,並通過了重要法案,使國民更容易入住公共房屋。與此同時,日本在2000年將支付給母親的產假替代收入提高了三分之二,並在2016年實施了比世界上任何國家也要慷慨的父親帶薪侍產假政策。

  過去一直以謹慎理財聞名的新加坡政府,也將公共醫療支出,從1990年佔政府總支出的9%,提高到2016年的14%。此外,新加坡政府於2003年改善小學和中學層面的「強制性教育」,同時持續對畢業生和研究生的支援。如韓國和日本,新加坡於2008年,將女士侍產假延長至16周-高於國際勞工組織的最低標準。隨著新加坡取消二孩政策,擁有兩個以上子女的父母可享受有薪產假。

  與其他東亞社會的福利政策發展相比,香港愈來愈滯後。我們從政策檔案和國際數據中可證明這點。事實上,我們發現香港自1990年代起,再也沒有一個突破性的福利政策改革。相反,香港絕大多數社會政策都採取了更為保守,只出現零碎的變化。

  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。

  面對所有東亞國家政府均面對的問題,為何歷屆香港政府的政策會與它們不同? 

  我們需要更有系統性的證據來全面回答這問題。一些就東亞社會政策發展歷史作的研究,也許能給予我們一些啟示,及幫助我們展開進一步的調查。這些研究指出政治組織的作用,包括工會和社會運動,以及一些既定的政策如何限制政策制定者的決定。相反,「制度粘性」往往能迫使他們利用重大危機和其他「機會之窗」來實踐有意義的變革。與其他東亞社會相比,我們需要充分了解香港社會政策的歷史因素。只有這樣,我們才有更好的機會影響決策者的選擇。。

  本文根據一篇將於年末發表在學術期刊《社會政策與社會》的研究論文所撰。