During her first 14 months in office, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has made all the right moves to please her political masters in Beijing.

With the support of her allies in the now neutered Legislative Council, she succeeded in pushing through legislation establishing an unconstitutional joint checkpoint manned by mainland officers in the recently opened West Kowloon express rail terminus.

Lam has also transformed her administration into a formidable public relations machine for Beijing’s Greater Bay Area initiative, which aims to bury Hong Kong’s unique East-West identity under a mountain of integrated infrastructure projects that will further amalgamate the city into the culture and economy of the Pearl River Delta.

Carrie Lam. Photo: GovHK.

And, just last week, with help from the police and by the foregone conclusion of Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu, Lam’s government succeeded in carrying out a de facto order from the central government, banning the small, pro-independence Hong Kong National Party (HKNP).

This is a likely prelude to future prohibitions on other forms of anti-China sentiment in the city, and possibly the beginning of the end of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in Hong Kong.

While Lam’s record so far has elicited Politburo smiles and plaudits all around, Hong Kong remains as deeply divided—politically, socially and economically—as ever, and things are arguably getting worse, not better, under her stewardship.

Indeed, an Oxfam report released at the end of September clearly demonstrates that the city’s economic and social divide is entering a danger zone in which enmity and resentment against a government that callously disregards people’s interests could well become the prevailing political passions for the grass-roots Hongkongers of our time.

The United Kingdom-based charity’s 60-page Hong Kong Inequality Report paints a stark and shameful picture of a first-world city with a third-world mentality toward the disadvantaged and the poor.

Sadly, the report also makes clear that the Lam administration, like previous governments before it, does not have any serious policy answers for addressing an alarming wealth gap that is the highest since records on economic inequality began 45 years ago.

With Lam preparing to deliver her second annual policy address on Wednesday, Oxfam urged her to allocate HK$36.7 billion (US$4.7 billion) toward poverty prevention and relief through a number of initiatives, including increased old-age allowances and places for the elderly in nursing homes, more government-subsidised childcare centres to allow more mothers to work, and much greater educational assistance to ethnic minorities, who suffer an often hopeless linguistic disadvantage in the city’s schools.

In addition, the report calls the government out on its miserly minimum wage, currently HK$34.50 (US$4.40) per hour, with an expected increase of a paltry HK$3 in the coming year. No one can live on that.

In today’s Hong Kong, according to the government’s own figures, the wealthiest households in the city amass 44 times the monthly income of the poorest families. Thus, the working members of an indigent family would need to plug and sweat for nearly four years to earn as much as one of Hong Kong’s renowned tycoons pockets in a single month.

Using the widely accepted Gini coefficient—an index from 0 to 1 that measures the wealth gap (total assets minus total debts) between the haves and have-nots, with 0 representing absolute equality and 1 absolute inequality—Hong Kong is one of the most unequal societies in the developed world.

As of last year, the city’s Gini coefficient stood at 0.539, the highest it has been since the measurement was first introduced more than 40 years ago. That compares to 0.4579 in Singapore, the longtime rival Asian city now outstripping us on so many fronts, and to 0.411 in President Donald Trump’s let-the-poor-be-damned United States.

Welfare chief Law Chi-kwong blasted the Oxfam report as “unfair” in his Sunday blog post, pointing out that, after factoring in government relief measures, the city’s Gini Coefficient drops to 0.473, but that still leaves Hong Kong with one of the worst wealth gaps in the developed world, hardly something to boast about.

Law also crowed about the 21.3 per cent increase in recurrent expenditures on social welfare this year; even with that increase, however, government spending on poverty relief remains well below that of other developed cities.

In Hong Kong—a low-tax haven of glistening skyscrapers towering over cage homes and firetrap sub-divided flats, of billionaire tycoons in chauffeur-driven cars dodging cardboard grannies, and of down-and-out McRefugees who have made 24-hour McDonald’s outlets their permanent homes — one in five people lives below the poverty line.

Photo: Citizen News.

In a crazy rich Asian city boasting a HK$690 billion (US$68 billion) budget surplus and more than HK$1 trillion (US$128 billion) in fiscal reserves, one in four children is poor while one in three among those aged 65 or over falls into the poverty trap.

And, by the way, according to Census and Statistics Department projections, this elderly group, who currently make up about 16 per cent of Hong Kong’s 7.4 million population, will comprise 35.9 per cent less than 50 years from now.

Think about it.

The poverty rate for ethnic minorities—23 per cent for South Asians overall and a shocking 48 per cent for Pakistanis—should be another great source of worry.

Plainly, radical policy changes that entail much more generous expenditures on social welfare are needed to both assuage poverty now and to prevent even more widespread economic misery in the future.

The old laissez-faire colonial economic blueprint of positive non-interventionism, which ultimately allows the free market to run amok, should have been abandoned at the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule.

The faces and ethnicity may have changed, but 21 years after the last British governor sailed away from the city Hong Kong is still governed by an overpaid clique of elitist bureaucrats who remain at the beck and call of masters ruling from afar—now from Beijing rather than London—still woefully out of touch with the real hopes and needs of the people who live here.

If Chinese leaders really understood and cared about Hong Kong, then they would stop cracking down on freedom of assembly and freedom of speech in the city and start cracking down on poverty. Hong Kong’s widening wealth gap is a far greater threat to its security than HKNP founder Andy Chan Ho-tin and his ragtag band of separatists.

It’s time to stop spending billions on scandalously wasteful and entirely unnecessary mega infrastructure projects such as the express rail link and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau super-bridge, and to start splashing out for the real needs of Hongkongers.

The chief executive’s upcoming policy address would be a great place to start. Unfortunately, what we are likely to hear is more of the same.

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.