Youth and economic development: Hong Kong and Macao

By Mathew Wong
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, April 23, 2017
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The contrasting experiences in Hong Kong and Macao highlight how leaders can create a more favorable environment for young people. [Courtesy of the University of Hong Kong]

The well-being of young people in a society is always an important concern. As they are the pillars of the society in the future, it is imperative for them to be nurtured in a positive environment with ample opportunities for them to grow. Conversely, problems of the younger generations may become serious issues for the society as a whole if not handled properly.

Policymakers and political leaders should keep an eye out for the young people in any development agenda. However, it is often unclear how this could be achieved. A recent research conducted on the youth in Hong Kong and Macao might provide some insights.

Hong Kong and Macao both became special administrative regions of China in 1997 and 1999 respectively. At that time, Hong Kong was already a mature economy, having enjoyed an extended period of strong growth in the previous decades. Despite some fluctuations in the post-handover period, the economy has been relatively stable.

Both its average growth rate and unemployment rate resembled those of a mature economy. In its established economy, previous generations of elites formed a highly competitive structure, which places a barrier of entry for young people. As a result, the rhetoric of maintaining competitiveness and the fear of falling behind in development are dominant.

For example, although Hong Kong has consistently been ranked among the most competitive economies in the world, reports and commentaries about Hong Kong being overtaken by Singapore, Shanghai or Shenzhen can be regularly found in the media. The concern for social mobility of the youth even prompted the Chief Executive to challenge young people to seek opportunities elsewhere, such as in the mainland.

Young people are also criticized for their working attitude, unwillingness to work hard, and their reliance on government assistance. Such an overall environment provides the youth with little optimism. According to a survey done by the government's Central Policy Unit in 2015, less than 20 percent of those aged 15 to 19 were satisfied with the opportunities offered in Hong Kong, and less than 15 percent expected a better personal development in the future.

In stark contrast, although the level of economic development in Macao is currently similar to that in Hong Kong, it was a rather recent achievement. The take-off only took place in the 2000s when the gambling industry was opened up. From 2009 to 2013, the average growth rate was 14.3 percent, as compared to 2.7 percent in Hong Kong.

Besides the gains in public revenue and taxation, such an impressive performance offers strong employment prospects for the population including the youth. The unemployment rate in Macao was kept at a very low level below 2 percent. The optimism is not lost on the young people. In a similar survey, as much as 45 percent of young people in Macao were optimistic about their future. They have much less to worry about in an expanding economy, at least as compared to their counterparts in Hong Kong.

The contrast in the views of the youth was further confirmed by a recent research led by Professor Chui Wing Hong at the City University of Hong Kong. Surveying over 4,000 young people, it is confirmed that the level of hope and purpose among respondents in Hong Kong dropped as they approached adulthood, representing their anxiety and pessimism facing the pressures of the society and surviving in a competitive economy.

On the contrary, those in Macao became more hopeful and had a stronger purpose when they grow older, reflecting their view on the opportunities offered in the society. Considering the geographical, political and cultural similarities of Hong Kong and Macao, the economic explanation, in particular the stagnant economy in Hong Kong versus the recent boom in Macao, emerges as the most convincing answer to the divergent pattern.

I do not intend to argue that the current development model focusing on the gambling industry in Macao is desirable or superior to the one in Hong Kong. To be sure, the flourishing of gambling in Macao also carries certain negative effects on the society and the young people.

However, the contrasting experiences in Hong Kong and Macao serve to highlight how political and economic leaders can create a more favorable environment for young people. Competition might be good for bringing out the most in the economy, but it might prevent younger generations from fully realizing their own potential.

Unhappy young people might also be a source of instability. It is high time for policymakers to rethink if the economy of Hong Kong is placing too much emphasis on competing and not enough care on the youth.

Dr. Mathew Wong is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of

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