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.