Is Hong Kong a classless society?

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1 Is Hong Kong a classless society? Hong Kong Social Science Webpage In Hong Kong, some sociologists such as Lee Ming-kwan and Lau Siu-kai claim that Hong Kong is not a class society, which refers to a capitalist society with pronounced social stratification by the ideas of Karl Marx (Macionis, 2001), or simply define Hong Kong as a classless society. Lee and Lau based on the reasons that the concept of class, which is a large-scale grouping of people who share common economic resource which strongly influence the type of lifestyle they are able to lead (Giddens, 2001), is not useful for understanding Hong Kong society and corresponding to the social reality in Hong Kong since there is an absence of working class activism and class conflicts in Hong Kong except for a few ideologically inspired riots in the post-war years. On the other hand, some sociologists, like Thomas Wong and Lui Tai-lok, objected on the basis of empirical research that the above reasons are not able to consider as an evidence of Hong Kong being a classless society. Lee Ming-kwan s Emergent patterns of social conflict in Hong Kong society in 1982 argued that the social structure of Hong Kong in 1980s was illustrated by the decline of working class activism and abundant opportunities for social mobility and a large and expanding heterogeneous middle class since Hong Kong s phenomenal economic growth and its meritocratic capitalist system provided plenty of opportunities for social advancement (Lui and Wong, 1998). Lee argued that a large heterogeneous middle social stratum of professionals, administrators and social clerical workers, which is now the largest class in Hong Kong, had no class consciousness or class interests since Lee employed the Oi Man Estate s survey in 1977 and found that 70 per cent of respondents agreed the statement that if a person who has high capability to work harder, his or her social status could be improved (Ho, 1999). Thus, Lee pointed out that the emergent pattern of social conflict is not based on the conflict of class interest but on the competition among a variety of occupational and interest groups for a greater share of society s resources. These features made Marxist notions of social class and class conflict, which is the ruling class who controls the means of production exploits and oppresses the subject class and a basic conflict of interest between the two classes emerged, irrelevant in the Hong Kong society. Social conflict in Hong Kong therefore was no longer a Marxian class struggle as social change during the last few decades has pre-empted class conflicts It will no longer be realistic to describe Hong Kong as a class society The last decade saw the beginning of a new pattern of social conflicts, which assume the form of interest group politics (Leung, 1996). The thesis of Lee in social

2 class argued that Hong Kong is a classless society since class analysis is not useful for understanding the Hong Kong society because of the absence of class conflicts in Hong Kong. Lau Siu-kai agreed that the Hong Kong is a classless society with the empirical research. Lau showed that Hong Kong people put a strong pecuniary emphasis on social relationships. They believed in the opportunities for upward mobility and admired successful businessmen. This diminished the perception of class and class conflict in the mind of Hong Kong people. Lau Siu-kai and Kuan Hsin-chi found the evidence in the 1986 Survey that 73 per cent of the respondents emphasised that the Hong Kong Chinese s livelihood was as good as that of the average Hong Kongese (Leung, 2001). This showed that people fail to see much difference in their life situation when Lau and Kuan studied the ethos of the Hong Kong Chinese. In the 1986 Survey, Lau and Kuan also found that the Hong Kong people had a strong belief in opportunities for mobility, which refers to the movement of individuals and groups between different socio-economic positions; a mild dissatisfaction with their present income; minimal membership in unions; a sympathy towards union causes without translating this into action; and a strong emphasis on social order and harmony. This explained that the class consciousness and class conflict of Hong Kong people do not seem to matter in the reason that social classes as structural forces in shaping interpersonal relationships and political actions are relatively insignificant in Hong Kong. Lee and Lau seemed to provide the evidences that Hong Kong is a classless society because Hong Kong people do not think that the rich and the poor belong to two opposing social classes, which are ruling class and subject class. However, Cheung Chau-kiu s finding counter Lee s and Lau s argument that there are significant differences among classes in Hong Kong on the subject of the explanation of social reality and social problems. Cheung found that members of the working class on Hong Kong feel more estranged in their work than members of the middle class and employing class. Such kind of estrangement is related to the acceptance of the structuralist explanation in the causes of social, economic, political, and group structures and events and a rejection of the individualist explanation of social reality which focuses on individuals traits and actions and situational, cultural and opportunistic factors (Cheung, 1999). Hence, Lau s argument for irrelevance of class depended largely on his respondents belief in the individualist explanation of social mobility and of economic interest. In addition, the overall findings of Cheung s paper uphold the Marxist view that productive relations and work conditions determine one s consciousness. This finding opposed Lee s argument that Hong Kong was no longer a Marxian class struggle as Hong Kong people had no class consciousness or class interests.

3 Furthermore, Thomas Wong and Lui Tai-lok are in opposition to Lau s argument that Lau did not scrutinise how Hong Kong Chinese differed in terms of their class position. Lau misled that the Hong Kong Chinese had similar values and orientations. This means that Hong Kong Chinese fail to see much difference in their life situation. For this reason, Wong and Lui employed Goldthorpe s mobility study as a class framework in Hong Kong context. Wong and Lui s study, which based on a representative sample of the Hong Kong population, devise a class map on the basis of occupational positions. They rank the major occupational positions into seven categories, which are: Class Major occupational Groupings Class 1 Upper service (upper class) Higher grade professionals, administrators, managers in large establishments, large proprietors Class 2 Lower service Lower grade professionals, administrators, higher-grade (upper class) technicians, managers in small business and industrial establishments, supervisors of non-manual employees Class 3 Middle class I Routine non-manual employees in commerce and administration, personal service workers and shop sales personnel Class 4 Middle class II Lower grade technician, supervisors of manual workers Class 5 Middle class III (petty bourgeoisie) Small proprietors, artisans, contractors with or without employees Class 6 Working class I Skilled manual workers Class 7 Working class II Semi-skilled and unskilled workers, agricultural workers Table 1 Class structure of Hong Kong (Lui and Wong, 1998, pp.242) In the study, Wong and Lui asked to class the respondents thought they belonged. Their research finding indicated that 79 per cent of the respondents thought they belonged to a class. The finding refute Lee s and Lau s argument that Hong Kong people have their class consciousness in defining which class they belong to. Wong and Lui s study also found that the lower classes were more likely to see class conflicts as inevitable, to hold the view that employers have to exploit workers so as to make profits, and believe that the average wage-earner receives less than he contributes in comparing with the higher class (Lui and Wong, 1998). Moreover, Wong and Lui s study seek to find out the ways in which the respondents would cope with certain problems in life differed in terms of class positions in Hong Kong. The finding demonstrated

4 that the higher classes would solve the problems more often through the market (such as borrowing from bank or finance company to pay the down payment for a flat, engaging maid or nurseries for child care, and moving if their existing living environment deteriorates) than would members of the lower classes. In terms of finding job, the lower classes would rely more often on the resource network of family, relatives and friends (Leung, 2001). Wong and Lau s finding showed that various social classes in Hong Kong use different methods to cope with different problems they face. In addition, Wong and Lui pay their attention to the social mobility. They would like to find out the Hong Kong people s social mobility opportunities or life chances in different people who have different class position. This explained the class differences in social orientations and social action in Hong Kong. Wong and Lui s research showed that there is a high rate of social mobility in Hong Kong. The research found a 55.2 per cent level of intergenerational total mobility, which compares the present position of individuals with those of their parents. Simply speaking, the research shows that Hon Kong is an open society. Nevertheless, Wong and Lui clarified that such openness is not absolute as it is much easier for the higher classes than for the lower classes in Hong Kong to achieve upward social mobility. The finding showed that professionals and top managers (class 1) have a large and largely uncontested competitive edge over the clerical and personal workers, just as the latter group outcompetes the unskilled manual workers (class 7). (Leung, 1996) Additionally, the research showed that the lower classes in Hong Kong are often trapped in their lower class position since Wong and Lui examined that the non-manual and manual break is quite substantial. This gives evidence that there is no equal opportunity for upward social mobility in Hong Kong. Besides, class analysis is also employed to study the potential for conflict and mobilisation of different classes, where cultural, institutional or revolutionary changes might have effect as a result of class formation and class action in both the Marxist and the Weberian traditions. Class as a socio-political force take political action for influencing government policies and the distribution of power. However, Hong Kong s new middle class is not a homogeneous class. It includes different occupational groups such as managers and administrators in business firms, teachers, secretaries and arguably, clerks and typists. Some of these occupations belongs to upper or service class and others belong to the middle class in accordance with Wong and Lui s scheme. These people think and behave differently. The divisive force for the middle class is reflected in the Hong Kong s current political development. First, the system of functional constituencies in the Legislative Council directs the attention and commitment of the middle class political leaders to special occupational groupings which lead to a fragmentation of interest. Consequently, the middle class political leaders do not represent the interests of the whole

5 middle class. Second, The June Fourth Incident in China overrides class identity and class interests of the middle class as the China factor split them into a pro-china fraction and a fraction opposing the Chinese government. Further, the political leaders in the middle class adopt an individualist approach in electoral politics. These reasons led to the consequence that the political activism of middle class leaders has the effect of splitting up the middle class, rather than reducing its internal differences. The political developments further weaken the capacity of the middle class to act as a consistent sociopolitical force. Alvin So holds an optimistic view about the recent political developments in the middle class. So thinks that there is a strong motivation for the middle class to join together socio-politically to defend its gains and privileges since the middle class is worried that they lost its gains and privileges after On the other hand, Lui and Wong oppose So s argument that the new middle class has won its gains and privileges through economic means. Therefore, the class is not disposed to take political action for protecting its gains and privileges. In addition, middle class tends to solve the problems by individual efforts. For instance, many of them have emigrated since they concern about what may happen after In the capitalist class, Leung Kwok-ping s study shows that most of the wealthy capitalists were the coopted members of the Hong Kong s most important policy-making body, the Executive Council. The capitalists had control over a large number of capitalist companies in Hong Kong. On the other hand, according to T Wong Lo, the capitalist control over government policy making and over the public in economic and ideology. Economically, the government relied them on revenue and maintaining Hong Kong s stability and prosperity. Ideologically, the government and the public believe that the capitalists are making very important contributions to Hong Kong stability and prosperity. Hence, in maintaining a balance between a plausible social order and the interest of the capitalist class, the government and the public tend to tolerant and lenient towards capitalist crimes. In the political involvement, upper class has more influence than middle and working class. For example, in Executive Council, only one member, Tam, Yiu-chung, from labour union have grass-root background. Lower class is voiceless in the policy making process in Hong Kong. The argument is able to conclude that in Hong Kong society, there are opportunities and openness, just as there are inequalities. In the working class, the 1956 riots and 1967 riots splits Hong Kong s working class into two rival factions. In the post-war period, such social-political actions were partisan political rivalries rather than working class political actions to advance class interests. Partisan politics, which is the political rivalry between the Communist Party and the Guomindang Party, has make it very difficult for Hong Kong s working class to act in unity. This showed that there is not an absence of working class activism

6 and class conflicts in Hong Kong in the post-war period. In a nutshell, the empirical research by Thomas Wong, Lui Tai-lok and Leung Kwok-ping showed that Hong Kong is not a classless society since the class positions have an influence on the Hong Kong s people thinking and behaviour. Furthermore, the class position determine to a significant extent Hong Kong people s success and failure. The empirical research about the social mobility and the class activism in recent political development showed that Hong Kong is a class society. Class is the important dimension of Hong Kong society in no doubt. Reference Cheung C K (1999) Variation in structuralist and individualist explanations among classes in Hong Kong, Sociological Spectrum, 19(1): Giddens A (2001) Sociology (Fourth Edition), Cambridge: Polity Press. Haralambos M, Holborn M (2000) Sociology: Themes and Perspectives (Fifth Edition), London: HarperCollins Publishers Limited. Ho K S (1999) The analysis and discussion of sociology: Theories and the research in Hong Kong (in Chinese), Hong Kong: Hok Fung Publishing Ltd. Leung, B K P (1996) Perspectives on Hong Kong Society, Hong Kong: Oxford University Press. Lui T L, Wong W P (1998) Class Analysis and Hong Kong (in Chinese), Hong Kong: Youth Literary Book Store. Macionis J J (2001) Sociology (Eighth Edition), New Jerrsey: Prentice Hall.

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