NO LONGER WITHIN THEIR REACH
The sense of optimism that I used to know of seems to have long evaporated.
It was not really that long ago that most people in Hong Kong believed that they would have their chance of making some changes to their lives. Their hard work would have some results. For some, they diligently studied under an education system driven by public examinations and tried very hard to earn their credentials; others tried petty entrepreneurship, from being a street trader to running a small factory with their family members in domestic premises. Pathways to success, however defined, were many and many believed that they would have their turn. Of course, not every one of them was able to make it and attain success. The notion that hard work plus some luck would bring about success was obviously more of a myth than reality. Yet, their perception of an open society did give them the drive for working overtime, moonlighting, and saving money for starting their small business.
In the late 1980s, I worked on a research on home-based manufacturing production. I followed women outworkers and saw how they managed to take up waged work at home while taking care of their children and coping with the domestic chores. I also talked to their employers in order to find out why putting out, one of the most traditional forms of production arrangement, was still in place when Hong Kong performed very well in global manufacturing production. Most of my informants were housewives trying to earn a little extra by taking up production at their homes. Some were more ambitious. They were the middle-persons that worked between the factory owners and the women outworkers at their community by helping the former to coordinate and manage industrial production (e.g., garment making) in large public housing estates. When the opportunity arose, these middle-persons boldly took up the challenge. They became small subcontractors, securing orders of production from the bigger factories and finding helping hands from their neighbours. The size of their production base was minimal but they had dozens of workers who sew parts of the garments which were farmed out from the bigger factories. They were always flexible and quick to adjust to seasonal changes. When I visited them again after finishing my manuscript, there were successful cases (not too many, though). But I was more likely to meet those who tried really hard and yet not able to move to the class of entrepreneur. Each of them had their own story to tell. However, their narratives were not sad.
There was a time when many people in Hong Kong thought they could save those extras they earned from moonlighting and turn them into capital for their own business. Family members would lend a helping hand and their resources would be pooled together for a family project–perhaps to support the elder brother’s plan of buying a home-ownership scheme apartment, or to own a small family business by running a shop in the neighbourhood. As I said, the chance of success remained slim. But in the eyes of many, the opportunity of making some changes in their own life was within their reach.
In those days, few people used the expression of social mobility. When they strongly believed that they could change their class position through hard work, they seldom mentioned social class in their daily conversation too. So, it is quite ironic that when social mobility became a topic of public discussion, and thus a lot more attention was given to the issue, increasingly more and more people in Hong Kong were finding their opportunity of social advancement decreasing. They are no longer convinced by the established narratives of Hong Kong being an open and mobile society. On the education side, the credential channels are now heavily congested. Hong Kong’s economic restructuring fails to diversify its economic structure and increasingly most of the employment opportunities cluster around the service sector, with occupations in high finance and banking, professional services, and commerce being seen as positions of promising career. Students and parents respond to such an opportunity structure not by thinking out of the box and looking for alternative pathways for personal success, but rather by trying to out compete their competitors according to the same set of rules of competition (say, pursuing a degree in a prestigious university). As a result, the growing intensity of competition in the labour market for those so-called desirable careers is widely felt and has wider repercussions in other domains of social life. Pressure goes down from anticipated labour market competition to that for university entrance and then further penetrates competition at secondary and primary education as well as admissions to kindergarten. This chain effect of mounting pressure is quickly forming a vicious cycle of unending anxiety: the anticipation of fierce competition at the point of labour market entry drives local parents to prepare their children for equally aggressive competition for credentials and qualifications. It is essentially a kind of competition for positional goods–each of the participants of the competition always wants to stay ahead of the others and, as a result, everyone fears of lagging behind.
For those who voluntarily or involuntarily choose the other pathway of social mobility, the option of petty entrepreneurship is equally challenging. The hollowing out of the manufacturing sector due to the massive relocation of industrial production to the Pearl River Delta since the late 1980s means that the available opportunity of running small business (say, being a subcontractor) has been significantly reduced. While many continue to pursue petty entrepreneurship in the service sector (from starting a small retail store to running a small restaurant), heavy overheads (particularly, the payment of rent) form a major challenge to survival and the main hurdle for further expansion. Whereas in the early post-war decades, Hong Kong was famous for its people’s motivation of starting their own business (and this resulted in the proliferation of small firms in different economic sectors); nowadays, the drive for petty entrepreneurship is largely tamed.
Previously, people practised social mobility. Projects were conceived and people worked on the planning for their materialization. Nowadays, social mobility is more of an abstract concept. It is an idea. More seriously, not many people believe that such projects are still within their reach.
Prof. Lui Tai Lok
(Research and Development)
The Education University of Hong Kong