Victims of cold pay price for Asian values


Hong Kong

How are Asian values standing up to the cold? The question is being asked in Hong Kong, as an unexpectedly severe cold snap has been blamed for causing, or accelerating, the deaths of more than 100 old people.

Some were street sleepers, while others were old people left shivering under thin blankets in unheated homes with paper-thin walls. Those relying on the rudimentary state support system were as close as it is possible in Hong Kong to almost unbearable poverty.

The colony's very poor are usually invisible, but the surge in deaths has sent politicians and newspapers scurrying to ask why the Government has not done more to provide heat and shelter to save lives.

Almost no one in Hong Kong, which is now higher up the prosperity league than Britain, has advocated creating a British-style welfare state.

Chris Patten, the Governor, boasts of his administration'sachievement in keeping public spending low, while economic growth remains relatively high. This fits in with the newly fashionable theory of Asian values, which holds that individuals and their families ought to look after themselves.

One of the theory's chief proponents, Singapore's elder statesman, Lee Kuan Yew, was speaking on Monday about how Britain's decline over the past 50 years coincided with the development of the welfare state. He said Singapore would suffer the same fate if it failed to keep its eye on the ball of economic growth.

In Hong Kong the government ended almost a week of media battering about its lack of concern for the elderly by declaring the answer "was old-fashioned community spirit".

"The government must take a lead in meeting the needs of those most vulnerable in the community," a spokesman said. "But it could not possibly hope to fulfill a role more properly met by basic neighbourliness and family values".

The Chinese, who take over the colony next year, accuse Hong Kong's government of overspending on social services. Last year a Chinese official said government spending was like a car that had run out of control, killing its passengers. These views have been echoed by the business community.

In a newspaper column published yesterday, Tsang Yok-sing, leader of the main pro- Peking party, said: "It is easy to win approval by saying it is a disgrace to affluent Hong Kong to have people dying of cold".

Despite government attempts to say the deaths were not caused by cold, the sense of shock in Hong Kong could be translated into demands for higher social spending.