Secretary for Labour & Welfare Matthew Cheung
Many economies are still experiencing the lingering effects of the global financial gloom that began in 2008. The world economic outlook is still clouded by considerable uncertainty and remains volatile.
Despite the tight labour markets and low unemployment rates in the more robust economies, youth unemployment rates are invariably far higher than the overall figures. Graduate unemployment remains a problem in many places, as is the issue of an apparent slowing down in upward social mobility.
Hong Kong is no exception. Whilst our latest overall unemployment rate for the period April to June 2015 remained at a low level of 3.2%, which is close to full employment, that of youths aged between 20 and 24 stood at 10.1%.
Hong Kong is a tiny dot on the map of East Asia. We are a small and externally oriented economy with a population of 7.2 million. However, Hong Kong is a leading international financial and business centre, a premier logistics and aviation hub, as well as an international maritime centre.
Hong Kong is widely regarded as the freest economy in the world and a highly competitive economy. We are well known for our world-class infrastructure, low and simple tax regime, robust banking and financial system, an abundant supply of highly skilled professionals and good corporate governance. We operate a level playing field where local and international companies compete on an equal footing.
We have a free and open society, underpinned firmly by an independent judiciary and the rule of law. We enjoy the free flow of information, freedom of expression and association, as well as a free press. Ours is a pluralistic society where issues are fiercely debated on a daily basis.
As a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China since July 1, 1997, Hong Kong has been operating successfully and admirably well under the cardinal and innovative principle of "one country, two systems". This gives us unique advantages and allows us to enjoy the benefits of being part of a rising China which serves as our economic hinterland, whilst retaining our inherent strengths and features.
When you are in Hong Kong, you are in the southern tip and doorstep of China. But then Hong Kong is not just any Chinese city, because we practise "the other system" that provides us with distinct advantages compared to other Chinese cities. Under the nomenclature of "Hong Kong, China", we can take part in our own right in key international organisations such as the World Trade Organisation and Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation.
As an open, international, cosmopolitan city, Hong Kong welcomes talents, professionals and entrepreneurs from all over the world. We have various admission schemes to facilitate their entry to work, live and settle here.
If you are contemplating where to start your career or find an internship, our door is always wide open and the opportunities we offer are promising.
As one of the international financial and business hubs, Hong Kong has always been known for our high connectivity with different parts of the world. We have been playing the key role of a "super-connector" between Mainland business enterprises and the rest of the world simply because Hong Kong understands both the Mainland and global interests. This understanding has been our core competence for several decades. Our unique position as the "Chief Knowledge Officer" can help Mainland enterprises "go global".
Hong Kong's world-famous Victoria Harbour skyline and our fast pace of life give you only a glimpse of the hectic lifestyle of an international financial centre. In stark contrast to the city's concrete jungle lie our big "green lungs". In fact, it is worth noting that over 70% of Hong Kong's total land mass comprises countryside and hilly areas and 40% is officially protected as country parks and marine parks, where a wide variety of flora and fauna are housed.
Our exotic and exciting food scene best illustrates Hong Kong's East-meets-West culture. As you walk into a typical local tea cafe (known as "cha chaan teng"), you will find a diverse range of reasonably priced and affordable food items on offer, from sizzling sirloin steak, Chinese steamed fish and dim sum, Indian curry and Russian borscht soup to French toast, all made into a distinct Hong Kong style incorporating both authentic and local flavours. This fusion menu underlines the openness, diversity, creativity and pragmatism of this dynamic and cosmopolitan city.
Whilst Hong Kong is no doubt a largely affluent society, with our Gross Domestic Product per capita currently at about US$40,000, we do have our fair share of social problems. A rapidly ageing population, a shrinking labour force and the poverty situation are but a few of the challenges that make Hong Kong both typical and unique as a living workshop for aspiring leaders like you to develop your problem-solving skills and learn how to contribute to fostering a caring community.
Tackling head-on the dual challenge of an ageing population and a dwindling workforce, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government has recently mapped out a holistic population strategy. The game plan consists of some 50 initiatives to promote sustainable growth, unleash the potential of the local workforce, nurture home-grown talents, attract foreign talents, and embrace the opportunities of a growing "silver hair" market. We are also striving to improve the livelihood of our senior citizens such that they can spend their golden years meaningfully and age gracefully in a dignified manner.
We always believe that proper planning and the right strategies can turn challenges into opportunities. Our aim is to help those who are in need and to give ample room and opportunities for those who can to realise their potential to the full.
To build a caring, fair and compassionate society for all, we channel almost 60% of our recurrent government expenditure into education, social welfare and health - the three main livelihood areas. We put poverty alleviation at the top of our policy agenda. Our strategy is to ensure that we have a reasonable and sustainable social security and welfare system in place for those in need. And, no less important, we should encourage able-bodied young people and adults to become self-reliant and economically productive through employment.
As part of the Government's concerted efforts to tackle poverty and enhance support for the vulnerable, we have introduced the Statutory Minimum Wage, set up the high-powered Commission on Poverty, devised an official poverty line, and rolled out a host of measures targeted at the needy, including the Old Age Living Allowance which has benefitted some 40% of our senior citizens. We will launch the Low-income Working Family Allowance in the first half of next year. This is designed to promote employment and ease child poverty. This flagship policy measure will benefit some 710,000 grass-roots citizens or nearly one-tenth of our population. It is expected to go a long way towards alleviating working poverty.
There is no denying that the current-term Government is investing heavily in welfare and poverty alleviation, and rightly so. Welfare spending in this financial year will amount to HK$60 billion (US$7.7 billion), representing a significant 18.4% of total government recurrent expenditure, just after education, which accounts for the lion's share. But let me hasten to say that we will stop short of going down the road of welfarism. We will not, and should not, adopt a populist approach. That said, we need to do our best to foster a caring society and help the needy. I must admit that this is a fine balancing act and not an easy one to achieve. In building a caring community, we are stepping up our efforts in mobilising the community and enlisting their support. We are leaving no stones unturned in promoting cross-sectoral collaboration among the business sector - riding on the wave of the growing awareness and acceptance of corporate social responsibility, non-governmental organisations, the academia, the professions and the Government.
Young people are our future and our future is in your hands. You are to change it, to shape it and to make it better. As you begin to plan for your future, do remember that Hong Kong is happy to be your starting point and launching pad, your collaborator and even your home.
Secretary for Labour & Welfare Matthew Cheung gave these remarks at the 6th University Scholars Leadership Symposium.
Department of Commerce
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