South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Alice Wu says the middle classes do not care whether John Tsang is one of them, only that he understands their struggles
This middle-class debate – an offshoot of the government budget unveiled last week – is a good one. Is Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah a member of our middle class? Truth be told, there is yet to be one universally accepted definition of “middle class”.
In the mid-1700s, the middle class was typically made up of those who were neither nobility nor peasants. By the 20th century, statisticians just grouped all who were neither the upper crust nor the working class under one big classification. It’s a sweeping generalisation. So, for the here and now, I reckon “middle class” means anyone who doesn’t own a private jet and isn’t eligible for welfare benefits.
Precisely because it is vague, the term is often exploited by politicians; appealing to the middle class is politically efficient. The term is more valuable to politicians than to policymakers.
But Tsang turned that completely on its head. His reply to a reporter’s question on whether he understands the plight of the middle class was based on illogic. He claimed understanding because he was “also middle class”. But it doesn’t take one to know one, surely. To say so would make all legislative councillors and members of the government unable to comprehend the life of the grass roots.
Unfortunately, for Tsang, he continued digging his middle-class hole with talk about the “middle-class lifestyle”.
Former Harvard Law School professor and now US senator Elizabeth Warren wrote about the increasingly unattainable middle-class lifestyle by the middle class 10 years ago in a book co-authored with her daughter, from which some parallels can be drawn. Warren, an expert in bankruptcy law, had seen the rising prices of quality child care and quality education – with the latter requiring middle-class families to pay for increasingly expensive homes in nice neighbourhoods – running the American middle class into the ground.
Ask many of this city’s young middle-class families, and they will tell you about their financial burden in funding playgroups, music lessons and kindergarten interview crash courses that they hope will give their children a chance to get into good pre-schools, kindergartens and elementary schools. For those with older children, tutoring and exam prep courses take up a huge chunk of their earnings and savings. Those who have nothing but a university degree and a mountain of debt will tell you that paying for these middle-class “values” mean there is little left for the “middle-class lifestyle”.
So it shouldn’t be hard for Tsang to appreciate that citing his ability to maintain his middle-class lifestyle of sipping lattes and watching French movies just makes it worse. Tsang needs to realise his comments come across as insultingly patronising.
So we’re back to square one. It’s not about whether Tsang is “middle class”, but whether he understands what makes life hard for the middle class, and hence what the government can do to lessen the pain. These are the basics: investing in quality education and health care, and providing affording housing, education and health care.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA