Bridging the Empathy Gap in Hong Kong's Meritocracy

It’s not long before you realize you’re in Central, Hong Kong: chauffeured Mercedes S-Class limousines cruising by, confined crystalline panels of ...

Feb 7, 2015

It’s not long before you realize you’re in Central, Hong Kong: chauffeured Mercedes S-Class limousines cruising by, confined crystalline panels of conglomerate offices or Brooks Brother’s-suited young financiers conferring on the dropping oil price. In the wee hours of Saturday morning, partiers recover from a night of popping Dom Pérignon while hunchbacked elders sweep the streets for cardboard to cover monthly rent.
The chasm-like wealth gap in Hong Kong has marginalized low-income workers to restrictive confinements, while oligarchs continue swelling their numbers on Forbes. The tragedy is not just that this exists. Rather, the culture of the meritocratic elite continues to promote wealth accumulation while neglecting the suffering of millions chasing the false meritocratic dream. The war on poverty isn’t just about helping the poor; it’s also about making the rich care.
Firm believers in stratification based on meritocracy uphold intelligence and effort as deserving of rewards. It’s the same rhetoric conservatives echo when opposing redistributive tax systems: the need to maintain rewards that drive competition and productivity. The harder you work, the deeper your pockets are.
The problem is that most children don’t start off the same. Limiting factors such as inadequate access to a decisive early childhood education, proximity to crime or even costly extracurricular activities for university admissions dictate the immutable trajectory ahead. A study by Stanford University shows that achievement gaps can arise as early as 18 months and even by the age of five a child can already be two years behind. This means that before the child attends his first class at primary school there are already institutional factors out of the child’s hands that may mean not attending college.
There exists little to no awareness of these sorts of inequalities in elite high schools across highly unequal cities like Hong Kong. More often than not, the language of fostering qualitative traits such as empathy is substituted in favor of the language of quantifiable metrics: test scores, leadership positions and university placements. Consequently, elite students become sheltered and attach themselves to peripheral ambitions that are oftentimes susceptible to hedonistic pursuits.
Those who choose not to join the bandwagon are often suffocated out of envisioning a future without comparable prestige and wealth. The value of empathy amidst this race is drowned out. The impetus to act upon it is often lost as well.
Glamorized lifestyles in our hyperconsumerist world don’t help either. Branding and mass marketing has tantalized adolescents into pursuing materialistic luxuries that only commodify self-esteem. Harris Interactive, a market research firm based in New York, asked adolescents from age 15-18 whether spending money was necessary for greater happiness: 71% said yes.
Could this be a case of a maturing teenager figuring their footsteps? It would be, if not for the fact that life ambitions and the process of identity exploration are deemed most formative at this age. It becomes cognitively burdensome to sacrifice the habitual and visible realm of upscale comfort against the intangible rewards of pursuing communal goals.
Perhaps, being thankful is the first step. The pursuit of wealth often anesthetizes a basic appreciation of the given: a family, a shelter, clean water, a top-tier education and above all, the capability to exercise human freedom. Boston College Center of Wealth and Philanthropy released a report in 2011 documenting the common fears of 165 respondents with a mean income of $78 million. Many of them expressed a sense of financial insecurity, isolation and fear over their children’s future. Being appreciative about the basic amenities of life can come from realizing that many who are deprived of the same conditions actually aren’t that different; they’re just born into different setting with a different yardstick of upward mobility.
Slum tourism may not be useless after all. High school service projects are often seen as a pejorative attempt to engage in feel-good charities that only color university applications. But I’ve come to realize that service doesn’t spring from textbooks or debates. In fact, for most of us, it’s simply a memorable strike to our emotions that begins the process of selfless thought. This thought process involves begging even the most epistemological questions such as: why am I deserving of all this? Put simply, empathy matures with age, but the earlier the empathy is felt, the more questions are probed and the deeper answers are uncovered.
Sensitivity to social injustice is growing everywhere, but it needs to be formalized earlier on in education. The numerous high school students who raise the yellow umbrella are a glimmer of hope for Hong Kong. Much of the uproar has occurred against the backdrop of Hong Kong’s soaring housing prices and the disenfranchisement of the younger generation. Little of this discourse is occurring in classrooms, which may lead to a blind devotion caused by sensational rhetoric and even cluelessness over what policy reforms to fight for. Students should feel that championing social issues isn’t just an after-school hobby but rather should be undertaken as a formal pursuit of their educational career.
Essentially, our meritocratic system needs to open up avenues for students to pursue careers with socially equitable goals without feeling a need to sacrifice their dignity or certain lifestyle choices. I’m optimistic that with the pervasiveness of reports on inequality and a louder call for a more inclusive capitalism, the focus of our meritocratic system will shift beyond merely generating wealth.
Justin Lee is a columnist. Email him at 
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