Hong Kong. Photo: iStock
Happy homes in Hong Kong. Photo: iStock

Happiness is a state of mind beautifully articulated by the philosopher Democritus, who was born in Abdera 450 years before the birth of Jesus Christ.

Ridiculed by Plato but admired by Aristotle, he lived during the dawn of the Golden Age of Ancient Greece, and developed a passion for metaphysics, mathematics and astronomy.

He also peeled away the human spirit to reveal its moral frailties in the fragments of his manuscripts that have survived. “Happiness resides not in possessions, and not in gold, happiness dwells in the soul,” Democritus wrote.

More than 2,500 years later in another vibrant city halfway across the world, Hong Kong citizens are still grappling with the same concept.

“If Hong Kong was measured on the scale of happiness quotient, I suspect we would be very low in the pecking order,” Neville Sarony, a Queen’s Counsel and a former Professor of Law at the City University of Hong Kong, told Asia Times. “Do the drunks in Lan Kwai Fong [an upmarket restaurant and bar area of Central’s business district] celebrate their free economy status or are they drowning their frustrations in alcohol?”

While the Heritage Foundation’s 2018 Economic Freedom Index cemented Hong Kong’s long-standing No.1 spot, the annual Gallup Global End of Year Survey in December showed the city was ranked the seventh-least ‘happy place.’

After polling 54,000 people from 55 countries and regions, the report made grim reading with Hong Kong trailing Iran, Iraq, Ukraine, Greece, Moldova and Brazil.

“Hong Kong people are unhappy because their original lifestyle has been invaded,” Phalanda Pang, a former newspaper editor from Shenzhen, who moved to Hong Kong in 2012, told Asia Times. “The family shops they liked no longer exist after being replaced by luxury brand stores [which are favored by mainland Chinese tourists].”

Still, this crisis of identity reflects just part of a complicated picture, which has become even more obscure since the former British colony was handed back to China under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ agreement in 1997.

More than 20 years later, there is a widely-held view that the rule of law has been eroded as Beijing tightens its grip on Asia’s major financial hub.

Grossly distorted

Monopolies in a slew of sectors from transport to supermarkets have triggered consternation along with a grossly distorted and expensive property market, which has been fueled in part by mainland Chinese buyers.

Simply owning a home has become an impossible dream for millions of Hong Kong people.

“There is no time to lose for the government to address our huge and stubborn housing problem. But as long as politics gets in the way, no government can be effective in tackling the problems that plague us. So, creating a favorable political environment must be a priority,” Alice Wu, a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA, wrote in the South China Morning Post.

But the issues run much deeper than just “housing.” Calls for great democracy and autonomy have grown louder, fueled by movements such as the “Umbrella Revolution” in 2014.

In response, a concerted campaign was rolled out by Beijing to clamp down on dissent at Hong Kong’s universities. Already the specter of ‘big brother’ was starting to loom large over society before claims surfaced that China was meddling in legislative elections.

“People are disappointed with the governance of Hong Kong,” Wu Chi-wai, a legislator and the chairman of the Democratic Party, told Asia Times. “Democracy and freedom are our core value. Those who are financial [secure] might decide to leave.”

A “brain drain” is a recurring theme when talking to certain sections of the community, although it tends to be anecdotal with few hard figures to back up emigration claims.

Significantly, the rising cost of living and narrow employment opportunities, centered around the financial industry and the low-paid service sector, are also cited as causes of discontent.

“Hong Kong has a brain drain,” Andy Kwan Cheuk-chiu, a former associate economics professor at the Chinese University, told Asia Times. “Many middle-class families send their children to study abroad and tell them not to return to Hong Kong.

“I expect more families and students will emigrate, and the reason is Hong Kong is getting worse and worse when it comes to living here,” he added.

Sarony, a Queen’s Counsel, went even further as a passionate advocate of political freedom. During the past few years, mainland Chinese security agents have apprehended Hong Kong booksellers for publishing ‘warts-an-all’ profiles on senior Communist Party politicians.

At the same time, Beijing has evoked a power to rewrite Hong Kong laws, while the government has moved to criminalize “disrespecting” the national anthem.

“Because they no longer see the city as an environment of opportunity to flourish, owning property is beyond their means and they fear for the future of their children,” Sarony said. “Before the rendition of the booksellers, people in Hong Kong believed they were safe, that sense of security has evaporated.

“They have been educated and brought up in a liberal quasi-democratic system and have adopted those concepts of freedom of thought and expression, which are taken for granted in advanced democracies. They see increasing attempts by the mainland to regiment their way of thinking. Hence, they fear the future,” he added.

Another hotly-debated topic is the standard of education in Hong Kong. Kwan, a former associate economics professor, is convinced a practical solution would be to set up “a vocational university.”

This would be run along the lines of institutes in Norway, which happened to be voted the second “happiest place on Earth” in the United Nations’ World Happiness Report last year.

“By doing this, we could train more people to be nurses to tackle Hong Kong’s aging problem,” he told Asia Times. “With enough talent, Hong Kong would be able to develop different industries, such as a healthcare sector for overseas visitors.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Ho Hei-wah, a veteran social activist and the director of the Society for Community Organisation.

Upward social mobility has stalled for poor families, Ho pointed out, and he put that down to a broken educational system.

A study by the Hong Kong Institute of Education, which has been renamed the Education University of Hong Kong, revealed that children from rich families were nearly four times more likely to go to university than ones from a less-affluent background.

“The educational system has reduced the upward social mobility,” Ho told Asia Times. “The inequality is the result of our education policy. The government encourages the establishment of private and direct subsidy schools which only the rich families can afford.

Poor families

“Students from poor families in ordinary, local schools lag behind, so upward social mobility is low,” he added.

Yet despite the challenges ahead, Hong Kong still has a strong hand to play, according to Shih Wing-ching, the founder of the Centaline Property, one of the largest real estate agencies in the city.

Being joined at the hip with the world’s second-largest economy has opened up an array of possibilities for future growth and development, he stressed.

“Hong Kong is so blessed to be able to rely on mainland China,” Shih said. “On a visit to Singapore, their officials said they would be delighted to have a motherland like China, which can bring so many business opportunities. It is an advantage to have China’s never-ending support.”

Others are not so sure.

Sarony, who has lived in Hong Kong since 1986, has great faith in the judiciary system. But he would like to see Beijing “take its hands off the wheel” instead of micro-managing the city.

Finding government leaders to “think outside the box and inspire the young” would also be a step in the right direction. Above all, Hong Kong’s government must put the people’s interests first, he argued.

“Unquestionably, Hong Kong’s greatest asset has been and still is, the absence of a corrupt judiciary. So, while mainland academics from obscure institutions who claim to be legal scholars pontificate about Hong Kong’s ignorance of the meaning of the Basic Law and snipe at our internationally recognized jurists, this city’s standing as a legal jurisdiction is second to none throughout Asia,” he said.

“[As for our] leaders in Hong Kong, they need to create solutions [and] inspire the young, and [have] the guts to put Hong Kong’s interests above all others. Is there still hope? Adapting the lyrics of a popular song of yesteryear: ‘If the song has ended, will the melody linger on?’” he added.

Now, that would have brought a wry smile from Democritus … and a raised eyebrow from Beijing.

Now read the full series

Part 1: Behind the glitz and glamour of ‘Monopoly City’

Part 2: Life in a ‘shoebox’ for the lucky rich in Hong Kong

Part 3: Little guys struggle in the land of the giants

Part 4: Road transport policy runs into a dead end in Hong Kong

Part 5: Innovation can breathe new life into the markets and economy

Part 6: Dreaming of a vibrant past and fearful of an uncertain future

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