Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol. 38 No. 22. September 11, 1975
Reports from China — A Rubbish Heap on China Back Doorstep
Reports from China
A Rubbish Heap on China Back Doorstep
During July an NZUSA delegation of 24 students left for a three week visit to the People's Republic of China. The delegation which included 11 from Victoria University visited the cities of Kwangchow. Shanghai. Tsinan, Peking and Hong Kong. During their stay they visited schools, universities, theatres, hospitals, communes, factories, housing areas and an army base as well as wandering the streets looking at Chinese life for themselves. These two articles are the second of a series.
Today, while China's 800 million people are fed clothed, housed, employed and are actively striving for complete equality, Hong Kong is a businessman's paradise at the expense of the poor and less powerful sections of the population.
We were taken round several residential areas by members of the Hong Kong Students' Association, visiting families and seeing the 'non-tourist' side of the city. Hong Kong's housing programme exists on many levels: though thousands of squatters still remain, thousands have been resettled over the last twenty years and thousands more live in transit areas, waiting for new accommodation.
Resettlement is usually in one of the high-rise apartment blocks which look so colourful from the street with washing hanging out a thousand windows. Inside, the reality is a little more grim. Rooms no more than 100 sq. feet house 5-10 people each - they are dark, stuffy and crowded with belongings. Toilet facilities are communal and minimal; there are no kitchen facilities. Most families store some kind of stove on the outside balconies, as well as furniture and other goods. But this causes great congestion. Worse, it is illegal, and local officials have to be 'persuaded to turn a blind eye.
The overall impression is of people everywhere - the average density of the city is the highest in the world, over ten times greater than the maximum recommended density of British housing development areas. Most noticeable are the children, playing in the dark concrete corridors because there is nowhere else to go, when temperatures outside are in their 30s.
Opposite the apartment block we visited was a swimming pool with two or three hundred children patiently lined up in the hot sun. As one person came out of the pool another was allowed to take his place - the line never seemed to grow very much shorter.
The public housing programme in Hong Kong actually began after a huge squatter fire left 50,000 people homeless on Christmas Day. 1953. The acute shortage of accommodation at that time made single family rooms without toilet tap, kitchen or electricity acceptable They were officially justified on the grounds that the programme was designed to meet an emergency situation. Today, however, the regime continues to provide only the absolute minimum in housing necessary to prevent worker discontent affecting production levels.
The general attitude of the people in power was admirably summed up in the last edition of The Economist' (July 19, 1975), which pointed out to investors that 'taxes will have to rise in Hong Kong (though not by all that much) to pay for the social welfare benefits the administration will have to provide to ensure continued political stability.'
It continued on a more optimistic note:
'But then, investors prize that sort of stability as much as they welcome comparatively low tax rates.' Behind the feeble attempts to relieve the poverty of Hong Kong's working population lies not a concern for the people themselves but recognition that private enterprise can only flourish in a reasonably stable social climate.
If the resettlement areas are bad, the transit areas are worse. They were originally intended to provide temporary accommodation after squatters were evicted from their old homes and before they could be rehoused. The maximum waiting period of three years has long since become a farce, however, and most families are there to stay. These people pay us rent, but they are given no assistance except a tiny piece of land on which to live. They have to find their own building materials fittings and interior decorations, even though few seem to have received compensation for their original eviction. Nor has the state ever provided any general plumbing and electricity - open drains are the norm and in the absence of basic hygene facilities the places we visited were unbelievably clean.
Conditions seemed even more crowded than in the resettlement areas, if such a thing is posssible. A narrow alleyway with an open sewer running down the middle separated two rows of houses. Well, not really houses, unless tiny single rooms constructed out of wood, corrugated iron, packing cases, wire netting and rags can be classified as such.
We visited one woman with four young children' She was making buckles on a sewing machine lent by a local factory. Belongings were stacked everywhere and, in the midst of the squalor, a television set sat in all its glory. The warped values of the capitalist economic system are glaringly obvious in the city - too poor to afford the essentials of life such as adequate housing, people have nothing to spend their meagre wages on except ostentatious luxury consumer goods.
In another room we found a husband and wife with their seven children. Both were unemployed, the woman pregnant again
Unemployment estimates today range between 12% and 25% of the workforce (there are no official statistics). Over and above this, most people have experienced some cut in wages during the recent economic crisis which has hit the colony particularly badly Hardship has not produced radicalism, however. Indeed. The Far Eastern Economic Review' quoted in its March 28 edition of 1975 the words of one official:
"Hong Kong is the only place in the world, surely, where workers would accept an actual drop in their standard of living (about 15%). They are now back to where they were in 1970 in terms of real purchasing power."
Business interests have certainly not accepted a similar cut. Earlier this year, for example, the Hong Kong Telephone Company applied to put up charges by 7% and then declared profits of $63 million.
Obviously, there is no democracy in Hong Kong. The Governor and senior officials are responsible to London, not to the local people. The largely powerless Urban Council is the only official body for which there are any elections and 90% of the population is excluded from the franchise anyway. Political parties are in effect banned. Trade Unions are not allowed to establish funds for political purposes, police powers are almost unlimited. Since there are no real avenues for criticism, then, it is little wonder that the existing government can point to the apparent apathy of the people as proof of its acceptance by them.
Crime flourishes all the same. There are an estimated 80,000 triad (secret society) gang members in the colony, many of whom are members of the police force. Prostitution absorbs 25,000 women a year — the business is good for tourism. Hong Kong has perhaps the worst hard drug problem in the world too, with well over 15% of the adult population addicted to opium or heroin. Not all that surprising, really, when several hundred thousand people do not even have the privilege of living in high-rise slums, but continue to live in the squatter conditions in the shanty towns.
Indeed, to see any reasonable accommodation at all, it is necessary to completely bypass squatter, transit and resettlement areas, and take a look at the apartments of the middle class Better still, visit as we did, a street slightly on the outskirts of the city. There we found beautiful family homes set in acres of garden and bush. They are difficult to describe in detail. The people living in them were a little more reluctant to show visitors through than the poor in their one-room shacks. And from the street it wasn't easy to see over the great iron, padlocked gates which shut them off from the teeming city. They bore a frightening resemblance to the Forbidden City in Peking, enclosed by a wide moat, its floors reinforced by fifteen layers of stone, where the Chinese Emperors of old lived in constant fear of the labouring poor.
Ironically, Hong Kong's housing programme is the social welfare service which gets the most coverage in the western world This, in spite of its complete inadequacy and the fact that it provides the regime with far more income than the squatter areas which it has replaced. The explanation lies in the even poorer record of the administration in other areas of social need. There are no sickness benefits, no pensions, no unemployment relief, no minimum wages, no limit on hours of work for males over eighteen. Child labourpage 7 continues in many areas, and there is no compulsory secondary education. In other words. Britain's interest in her colony is limited largely to economic considerations
Hong Kong was seized from China by the British in three stages during the 1800's. Today it continues to serve the motherland well taxes are extremely low and become regressive for higher incomes, exchange restrictions are non-existent, and rock-bottom wages reflect the abundance of labour. Consequently, opportunities for profitable investment and industrial development are tremendous, and decolonisation has been steadily resisted.
China however has never rescinded her claim to Hong Kong as part of her territory In 1972, for example, she told the United Nations that:
"resolution of the problem is entirely within China's sovereign right . . . and should be settled in an appropriate way when conditions are ripe."
There are already close links between China and Hong Kong. China supplies Hong Kong with most of its food and water so that her support is essential for its continued existence. Indeed, the colony is her largest single export market and a valuable point of contact for the development of trade with the outside world. But though economically useful to China at the moment Hong Kong would also be an asset if included within her boundaries.
Besides foreign trade only accounts for 7% of China's total G.N.P., and her exports of rice and oil are in worldwide demand. Most important of all, China's actions are ultimately based on political considerations, not economic advantage. On these grounds, and keeping in mind that Britain's lease on the New Territories of Hong Kong expires in 1997, it seems unlikely that Britain's last industrial colony has more than a limited future in its present form.
Salient is published by VUWSA and printed by Wanganui Newspapers Ltd. Drews Avenue, Wanganui.