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For Richer or Poorer

April 22, 2009

Ah, what a difference a year makes!

Back in early 2008, the Hong Kong Government announced a whole array of economic giveaways and sweeteners because of a huge surplus in the city's coffers. The Financial Secretary had been under pressure to share the unexpected wealth, which was good news to Hong Kong's 7 million people.

Fast forward to 2009.

The Government has just released details of the 2009-10 budget. In light of the global economic downturn that has hit Hong Kong hard; a series of measure s will be implemented to help citizens cope with the financial crisis. This time, however, there won't be much given away and little to sweeten the pain. There is no stimulus plan and only modest tax cuts. The centerpiece of the Government's response is HK$1.6 billion (US$206 million) to create 62,000 jobs.

The Government says they are not being stingy. Rather, they are being prudent; investing money where it is most needed and can do the most good. "We are not creating jobs for investment bankers," said Financial Secretary John Tsang. "We should spend the minimum of resources to create the maximum number of positions." In addition, Tsang reported billions more will be spent on infrastructure to create job opportunities and stimulate economic growth.

Not surprisingly, there has been little enthusiasm for the budget. Union officials claim most of the new jobs are only training or short-term posts, not real jobs. Business owners lament there is nothing for small and medium-size enterprises that may go bankrupt or have to lay off workers. The middle class want higher tax relief while the grassroots struggle to survive on wages as low as HK$20 (US$2.50) an hour.

Hong Kong actually is fortunate at least compared to other countries in Asia. Though the Government will probably run a deficit budget for the next few years, in fact, Hong Kong has a sizable reserve. Many will no doubt suffer in the short-term until the world economy recovers. Yet others realize that the city needs to formulate long-term measures to address the real problems in the way Hong Kong runs its economy.

Recently, the Hong Kong Christian Council released a statement on the financial crisis that goes to the heart of the issue:

In the past, Hong Kong mainly focused on developing financial business because of its high return rate while neglecting local economic and industrial development. Even government policy did not encourage diversified economic activities…it has been pursuing the financial dream of being part of "Nylonkong" – the New York-London-Hong Kong economic triumvirate. As such, they pursued the robber baron investment strategy in the market to rip off the highest reward in the shortest time, fueling human greed. Indeed, the financial disaster is precisely the result of this kind of 'casino capitalism', pushing the world to the edge of collapse.

While governments try to put band-aids on the wounds, Christians should be advocating economic justice for all God's people – whether in Hong Kong, mainland China or anywhere else. The Church has always recognized the need to protect the poor and marginalized through acts of charity. Now we understand how important it is to tackle the root causes of the financial tsunami that has circled the globe crashing from shore to shore.

The term 'financial tsunami' is something of a misnomer.  Most of us had never heard the word 'tsunami' until a real one hit Asia back in December 2004, killing over 350,000. While the magnitude of the current economic crisis is catastrophic, it was not an act of nature like a real tsunami. It was not something beyond our control that could only be managed with early warning signals and protective barriers. The financial tsunami was caused by human greed – people living beyond their means, companies engaging in nefarious practices, governments abdicating their regulatory role.

What then can churches do? I commend to you these words from HKCC:

Churches are a body of people who carry God's grace and live in hope. Therefore no matter what situation, we can be content and know how to live whether rich or poor (Philippians 4:11-12). As we face the financial tsunami, we need not fear. The Church not only lends a helping hand to those who have financial difficulties but also keeps speaking out against injustice and the systems in society. We should encourage Christians to participate in policy making of public affairs as well as put forth enterprises to undertake greater social responsibility and accountability.

We pray to our Lord to strengthen the heart and will of each Hong Kong person. Let them be brave to face the onslaught of the financial tsunami. We also pray that the Government, enterprises, local organizations and churches can work together to manage the financial risk that comes with globalization. We earnestly pray for everyone to have the vision and commitment to build up a sustainable society that promotes justice and brings abundant lives.

In the peace of Christ,

Judy Chan

Judy Chan serves with the Hong Kong Christian Council.  She is responsible for communications for the Council.  She is also in charge of ecumenical radio broadcasting ministry, English publications and ecumenical partnerships in Hong Kong and overseas.

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