Hong Kong was once a vision of China’s urban future. Now, not so much

Commemorating the 20th anniversary of the handover. Image: Getty.

Once a vision for urban development, Hong Kong has seen unprecedented changes to cityscape following its transfer of sovereignty to China 20 years ago. Its transformation into a global financial hub promised a vital link between East and West– but that vision that now seems to be fading fast.

Since its handover in 1997, Hong Kong has been paralysed by its inability to resolve disputes on important development projects. Each year the region must roll out HK$70bn worth of public development projects, subject to approval by the Legislative Council of Hong Kong. Yet, frequent filibustering from political rivals has resulted in only HK$4.8bn projects being approved this year.

Adding to this problem, widespread distrust of its Beijing-backed leadership often leads to vicious political disputes between the central government and the pro-democracy opposition.  

"Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability are largely because of the motherland", says Wang Zhenmin, the legal head of the China Liaison Office. Although the region relies heavily on mainland support, it has also exacerbated many existing problems.

Before the handover, Hong Kong had a reputation for the speed and efficiency with which it developed new buildings and structures. Now, however, its climbing skyscrapers seem to have come to grinding halt – a factor that can be broadly attributed to a lack of developable land.

Its popularity among mainland Chinese has resulted in almost a million migrating to the territory. That’s contributed to Hong Kong’s skyrocketing housing prices, which have risen by almost 400 per cent since its real estate flop 14 years ago.

It is for this reason that the housing policy think tank, Demographia, identifies Hong Kong as the least affordable place to live in the world. Recently, a parking space in the Western District sold for HK$5.8m (£576,000).

With its soaring rent prices, Hong Kong suffers from massive income inequality, too. The authorities have taken some steps to tackle this: last March, the minimum wage was raised to HK$34.50 an hour. But some argue that this still fails to meet rising living costs.

In many ways, Hong Kong has benefitted economically from an influx of mainland Chinese workforce. However, this has also been accompanied by a growing awareness of the importance of Mandarin, or Putonghua. Large international corporations tend to seek out Putonghua-speaking employees, leaving the local population ill-equipped to thrive in the new business environment.


Many also argue that there is a government bias towards Putonghua in schools. In 2009, a controversial decision from the Standing Committee in Language Education and Research led to a pledge to invest HK$26 million for schools to switch teaching from Cantonese to Putonghua.

Elsewhere, this demographic shift is marked by an outflux of local Hong Kong residents. The number of local residents permanently moving to Taiwan increased by over 36 per cent last year, while a recent survey showed that 42 per cent of residents wanted to leave Hong Kong.

Another pressing issue is congestion: nearly 40,000 journeys are made between the mainland and the island every day. The construction of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge will increase capacity to almost 220,000. But the project has since suffered a two year delay due to overspending.

In line with environmental concerns over traffic, the problem of plastic waste disposal in Hong Kong is also a growing epidemic. The region produces nearly 2,000 tonnes of it a day – constituting over 80 per cent of its drifting sea refuse. On top of this, its inability to process the material leads to frequent delays in infrastructure projects by environmentalist groups. However, stricter air quality targets have certainly led to a decrease in air pollution, along with a shift in people’s attitude towards sustainability.

So what does the future hold for Hong Kong? Its tense political climate shows no sign of abating. The tightening grip of Beijing is perhaps best marked by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at the anniversary ceremony last week: “Any attempt… to use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line” – a thinly veiled reference to the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement.

For the time being, the region continues to benefit from world-class road and rail infrastructure. Its skyline still glitters with the lights of buildings rising above the clouds. One thing is clear, however – Hong Kong is no longer the promising cityscape once dreamed of by its inhabitants.

 
 
 
 

A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget – hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?


Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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