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Enduring our trails and tribulations

Hong Kong, 24 May 2023: Hiking with the Stumblers is a leisurely activity. The challenging terrain of Hong Kong’s country parks, coupled with aging limbs and much chatter, means we advance at modest speed, admiring the scenery and stopping for regular rests. Inevitably, we are occasionally required to step aside as some energetic young pups sprint through, water bottles in hand, knees and elbows pumping, barely breaking sweat. These single-minded citizens are Hong Kong’s trail runners, a focused and supremely fit group of athletes dedicated to their sport.

They are also a brassed-off bunch these days. The Trail Running Association of Hong Kong (TRAHK) is at loggerheads with the august body that oversees all types of running – whether on track, road or hillside – in our city, namely the Hong Kong Association of Athletics Affiliates (HKAAA). The former is angry that just four athletes – three men and one woman – have been selected for the World Mountain and Trail Running Championships in Austria next month when it believes 13 should be sent. TRAHK accuses its athletics overlord of “blocking the sport’s development in Hong Kong” and, showing a willingness to go the extra mile, has offered to fund additional athletes and even take over the selection process.

However, as we have witnessed recently in Anthemgate, hell hath no fury like a Hong Kong sports official whose competence is questioned. “The HKAAA requests an immediate and unreserved withdrawal of your accusations and suggestion together with an appropriate apology from you,” thunders Executive Director Dennis Ng in an emailed response to the trail runners. Once the dust has settled, we learn it will indeed be just the four athletes going to Austria – “Deeply disappointing and a wasted opportunity,” sighs TRAHK Secretary General Steve Brammar – amid a serious rift in relations between the two bodies. It seems this particular feud might, ahem, run and run.

Another foot race, of sorts, is the emigration wave that is causing companies a chronic shortage of middle managers. Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce CEO George Leung warns the talent drain has “severely crippled the operations” of local firms, with turnover rates at many exceeding 20%. “I learned that managers are now having to operate forklifts themselves,” he reveals. The Chamber wants our government to offer more incentives for professionals from mainland China and elsewhere, pointing out that competing economies are taking a more “aggressive” stance by offering tax breaks and other financial incentives.

The government’s Top Talent Pass scheme, open to individuals earning at least HK$2.5 million and graduates from the world’s top 100 universities, has been operating for six months. Some 95% of approved applications have come from the mainland. We need all the help we can get. Official figures show our city’s workforce shrank by 94,000 employees, or 2.4%, last year. A survey by human resources agency ManpowerGroup Greater China has found 85% of employers are having difficulties filling positions.

This talent shortage is here to stay, it seems, because Hong Kong’s steadily falling birth rate is creating a demographic headache for generations to come. The number of babies born has dropped consecutively over the past five years to a record low of 32,500 in 2022. This has implications not only for kindergartens but also primary and secondary schools, tertiary institutions, the workforce and, naturally, key parts of the economy.

It seems couples are not only delaying having babies, many do not want them at all. “The younger generation no longer buys the concept of carrying on the family name. They are not ‘childless’ but ‘childfree’ and see it in a positive way,” observes population health expert Professor Paul Yip. A recent report from the United Nations Population Fund shows Hong Kong has the lowest total fertility rate – the number of children a woman is expected to have over her lifetime – in the world.

If there is any consolation, neighbours Singapore, South Korea and Japan are scarcely more productive. These nations are trying to reverse their declining birth rates with financial incentives such as subsidies, allowances and, in Singapore’s case, lump sum payments – or “baby bonuses” – for each child. Such attempts receive short shrift from Hong Kong lawmaker and mother-of-two Eunice Yung, who says: “No one will decide to give birth because of a tax allowance.”

Should we be worried about where this city is heading? Definitely not, asserts Grenville Cross, Hong Kong’s first post-handover Director of Public Prosecutions and my latest guest on Law & More. Grenville points to our legal system and independent judiciary as just two of multiple reasons to be bullish about Hong Kong’s future. His thoughts, together with entertaining tales from his distinguished career, are well worth hearing.

In closing, we should note present DPP Maggie Yang still has plenty on her plate stemming from the 2019 civil unrest. Less than a third of the 10,000-plus citizens arrested have been charged thus far and there have been calls this week for the process to be accelerated. Chief Executive John Lee insists police will not set a timetable to wrap up investigations, but some lawmakers are asking if they could at least speed up just a little bit.

The Stumblers, some might surmise, are not the only ones plodding along.

Until next time, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins







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