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Who Represent the Middle Class?

 (Letter to Hong Kong ¡V 2003.10.26)

Many who took to the streets on the first day of July this year are professionals and some of them are my personal friends from a high educational background with a well paid job. These friends of mine, who could hardly be described as politically active individuals, had probably felt that their concerns were not adequately reflected and that their voices were not clearly heard. To march in a peaceful demonstration on a hot summer day, has seemed to be the only option left to them, to act and to express themselves directly. This is despite of the fact that all major political parties in Hong Kong claims to be the true representative of people like them. Why then are their aspirations still so poorly represented?

Hong Kong is a land of opportunity and our people are hard working and well motivated. The social mobility of the working population is high and that our average income is now comparable to the most advanced economies in Western Europe. However, the oddity of the situation is that a great number of people who had reached our middle income range, which is high by world standards, are still dependent on subsidies from the Government for low cost housing, education and medical care. Only very few have to pay taxes to a significant extent. Therefore, it is not surprising that the great majority of the people of Hong Kong still feel and identify themselves as ¡¥grass-roots¡¦ rather than behaving like the politically conservative ¡¥middle class¡¦.  In an executive-led style Government like Hong Kong where political powers can be exercised with little corresponding responsibilities, it is not then surprising that ¡¥welfare politics¡¦ has taken center stage in geographically based direct elections.

On the other end of the spectrum, major businesses are also well represented by a ¡¥business friendly¡¦ administration lead by a Chief Executive from that sector. Their political interests are further guarded by a good number of politicians elected from those functional constituencies dominated by corporate votes. With a high concentration of financial resources and a network of tightly organized trade associations that are not shy to tackle politics head on, their political influences are also entrenched for the time being.

In the ¡¥sum-zero¡¦ game of politics, the ones to loose are those who fell between the cracks of this increasingly polarized community. In reality, it is that group of less than a million salaries taxpayers who are contributing more than their fair share to the public coffer but getting little back in return. A good number of them might come from good educational or professional background.  However, even if there is a will, this relatively small group of people are hard to identify, hard to reach and therefore, hard to represent.

Some rough and ready guides to identify this group of people could be by their income level, educational attainments or by the economic stakes that they hold e.g. privately-owned properties, stocks and the size of their bank deposits. However, not only that such personal information is hard to come by, those who are identified might also come from a very diverse background of different political belief and inclinations. A typical political profile is almost impossible to draw.  Nonetheless, this ¡¥silent minority¡¦ are crucial to the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong. They are the most productive group who would not wish to rock the boat without a seriously good cause. With greater opportunity for higher education in recent years and an increasingly affluent population, the number of this group of people is fast growing. To ensure that they are properly represented remains a challenge not only for the political parties in Hong Kong but also for our Government who has obviously let them down in a big way recently.

It is perhaps a reasonable assumption that there is a high concentration of this ¡¥silent minority¡¦ in professional groups like accountants, doctors and engineers. But it cannot be said that they are organized simply because they belong to a professional body. For example, The Hong Kong Society of Accountants has observed a long tradition of staying scrupulously apolitical. Many other professional bodies hold the same attitude towards political affairs. As many senior professionals also distrust political parties, thinking that their interests will only take second priority to either the ¡¥grass-root interests¡¦ who help to bring in votes or the ¡¥business interests¡¦ who has the financial clout.  There are of course a fair number of politicians directly elected by one-man-one-vote from functional constituencies of professional groups. However, they are often left to their own devices with minimal support from their related professional organizations.

As an attempt to better represent the professionals in LegCo without binding their respective professions to a set of rigid political ideology, I have founded the political alliance with other like-minded legislators in 1991 now commonly known as Legco¡¦s ¡¥Breakfast Group¡¦. Although this alliance has substantially increased our bargaining powers collectively, we are still a minority in the polarized world of politics.  The group has not evolved into a political party as I believe that the political aspirations of professionals like accountants are fast changing over time as our number rapidly grow and our profile become generally younger and the average income turning more modest. In any case, a political party strictly for the professionals and the ¡¥middle-class¡¦ in Hong Kong at this point in time is still unlikely to become mainstream politics and might not do any better than the well-oiled and well-tried alliance we have now. Unless the existing Government and political parties change their way of thinking, we will still be listened to only if it also suits their interests or when we actually hold the balance of power.

We can also hope for the existing political parties to take a more balanced view to suit our tastes. I am sure too that they will gradually mature and succeed in better representing the middle class. But the process is likely to take a long time or else the short term interests of their existing supporters might be compromised.

What seems to have changed too is the design of the executive-led government staffed by a team of politically neutral civil servants. Being professional administrators with a fairly typical middle class background, they are well placed to balance equitably the overall society interests with no winners but also no losers. However, the Government now is eager to set its own agenda and has kept busy picking its own team of political winners. To some extent, I would admit this is unavoidable as the Legislative Council is increasingly dominated by political parties and that their induced co-operation has become essential.

Some believe that all out direct elections may be a panacea solution. The advocates would say that for better or for worse, we have at least a choice. That of course is true, but the harsh political reality might be that the grass-root votes might end up sweeping the elections and the views and values of the silent minority even less well represented than the political structure now!!

Redesigning the political system to unduly favour the middle class is another possibility if it is treated strictly as an interim measure; however, this would be seen as a step backwards in our democratic development which is not in line with the spirit of the basic law.

Personally speaking, I do not think that this group of independently minded people neither needed any political favoritism nor desire a strong political representation. We are just hoping for a culture of politics and government that places high values on self awareness, self-respect and self-reliance. Political leaders who would exercise powers fairly and justly. A professional attitude towards our political responsibilities that holds integrity in a higher place than personal dignity and face. An authoritative Government that would respect knowledge and listen to reasons but not simply guided by a count of votes in the Legislative Council. If such an enlightened state of affairs can be achieved, then it matters not who would like to represent the middle class.

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