CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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Fifty-year-old encyclical reflects how little has been achieved

HONG KONG (SE): A forum organised by the Justice and Peace Commission at Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Wanchai on September 29 to mark the 50th anniversary of the release of the landmark encyclical, The Progress of Peoples (Populorum Progressio), heard there is still a long way to go in bringing the development of humankind to an inclusive fulfillment.
Penned by Pope Paul VI in 1967, the encyclical names income inequality as the huge problem in society and 50 years on, rather than seeing progress in that area, speaker after speaker at the forum pointed out that we have slipped backwards.
A succession of speakers pointed to the huge income disparity in Hong Kong and in China, noting that hand in hand with the expansion of their economies year on year comes an expansion in the wealth gap.
Franciscan Brother William Ng Wai-lit pointed out that the bottom line development presented in the encyclical mainly addresses the poverty problem as it existed 50 years ago.
He pointed to its opening words where it describes the development of peoples as lifting them above hunger, out of misery, beyond endemic diseases and ignorance to achieve an inclusive development embracing all humankind.
Brother Ng added that the encyclical also addresses some problems resulting from the capitalist economic system and it does stress that money is not an indicator of inclusive progress, as the welfare of every person on earth should be considered.
He quoted the encyclical as saying, “Development cannot be limited to mere economic growth. In order to be authentic, it must be complete: integral, that is, it has to promote the good of every man and of the whole man” (14).
Pope Paul’s masterpiece encyclical also says that better-off nations have the responsibility of extending a helping hand, describing it as an obligation stemming from brotherhood, social justice (the rectification of inequitable trade relations between powerful nations and weak nations), as well as the duty of universal charity (44).
Brother Ng also stressed that the encyclical does not support the principle of non-interventionism, something that is increasingly being clung to by some countries today, as he believes there should be institutions with the responsibility and authority to coordinate collaboration between countries until an order of international justice can be recognised as established (78).
He praised the encyclical for reflecting a vision of building up a spirit of solidarity and brotherhood in the world, a spirit he said that religious people have to explain so that it can be lived out in the daily lives of societies and individuals.
On the other hand, the Franciscan brother noted that the world of today is not the world of 50 years ago, and from the perspective of the present, he said it lacks concern for the continuity of development, which today is a pressing issue, as economic development has taken a great toll on the natural environment.
Hui Po-keung, from Mobile Co-Learning Limited, a political education institute, said the encyclical does point out some factors that the present world still ignores.
One thing he highlighted during the forum was that economic growth is commonly measured by the gross domestic product, which is no longer a reliable indicator of development.
Hui stressed that the calculation of the gross domestic product has many limitations, as it does not take account of contributions to society that cannot be measured in dollars, but do contribute to the improvement of the overall life of a society as a whole, like household chores and voluntary work.
He added that from his point of view, a ridiculous feature of Hong Kong is that many home-makers, mostly housewives, are regarded as idling away their time and are being pushed to find work outside, reflecting that contributions that do not carry a monetary reward are not respected or valued.
However, Hui believes that those who do housework are in fact contributing to the development of the family and should be encouraged and recognised.
Other things the gross domestic product ignores are the problems caused by the production processes that leave some people worse off in the long run, with the big one being the uneven distribution of income, but depreciation in the value of environmental resources and the enforced sacrifice of leisure time and quality of life are not taken into account either.
Hui also pointed out that the happiness indices in many countries actually diminish with an increasing gross domestic product and countries with lower measurable income, such as Sweden and Finland, tend to have higher happiness indices.
Hui added that he believes a further principle espoused by the encyclical which people still ignore, and Hong Kong is a prime example, is that development should be inclusive, embracing every person.
He pointed out that economic growth in Hong Kong mostly benefits the higher income group only, which is reflected in its Gini Coefficient, a measure of disparity of income, which reveals the widest gap of any country in the world.
Hui explained that while high economic growth has supported the production of a wide variety of goods, such as up to date mobile phones, the favourable economic environment has not brought property prices in the territory down to a level that most people find it possible to afford.
He said under such situations most people in Hong Kong are saddened, as they are stranded with unsatisfied material desires and little to pin their hope on.
Hui spoke disparagingly about the often sprouted encouragement given to people on lower incomes to think positive and work hard, saying it is futile, because the main problem does not lie with them.
On top of that, he stressed that it is not fair, as that kind of rhetoric dumps all the blame on the victim.
Giving out a bit of his own homespun wisdom, Hui suggested a simple solution to the dissatisfaction syndrome is keeping material desires in the perspective of possibility and living a simple life, which he suggested can be quite satisfying.
But he also believes that is a solution that most people living in Hong Kong’s consumerist society cannot accept and even despise. Hui was also critical of many of the poverty alleviation programmes in Hong Kong, saying that handing out allowances is only remedial and the Hong Kong government needs to get serious and come up with long-term policies that directly address inclusive development.
Pun Ngai, from the Department of Sociology of the University of Hong Kong, who has conducted research on factory workers in China, described inclusive development, or a world in solidarity as mentioned in the encyclical, as never being able to become a reality so long as the disparity of distribution of income in the world is not addressed.
She pointed out technological improvement in the modern world has created huge international enterprises, but management always has the biggest say on how the profit is distributed among the staff.
She cited the Foxconn factories in China, the major manufacturer of Apple iPhones, pointing out that in her years of research she has discovered that factory staff have to follow strict rules, while only receiving a meagre income, driving many of them to despair and even suicide, as was illustrated at the company site in Foshan a few years ago.
She also pointed out that suicide is still a still growing issue in the industry, but management has learned how to cover it up better.
Pun said that factory workers are often required to work 12-hour shifts throughout the night and are forced to remain standing so they won’t fall asleep.
She believes that what makes the problem worse is the support government gives to such enterprises, as thousands of students as young as 16 in vocational training schools are sent to work as interns in the enterprises every year.
Pun stated that of the 1.4 billion population in China, only 0.1 billion of them belong to what can be considered middle class and can afford to travel around the world or buy the luxury goods, which gives people the impression that Chinese people are generally rich.
She described the high incomes of the 0.1 billion as in fact being the fruit of the work done by the other 1.3 billion, who are deprived of a proper income.
She stressed that governments or enterprises will not be interested in addressing the widening income gap in society, unless a strong voice from the general public demands it.

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