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Welfare or Politics?

Would you support a policy you like, but proposed by someone you don’t? The answer to this question is complex as it depends on several factors such as the policy design in question. What is more, the spillover from politics to policy is difficult to be identified as they are intertwined: even an honest respondent might not actually know the extent to which his/her preferences are influenced by feelings towards the political actor.

In a recent article, I attempt to tackle this question by a survey experiment in Hong Kong, which is notorious for its skyrocketing housing prices and income inequality. As the most expensive and least affordable housing market in the world since 2010, Hong Kong’s median home price is 18.1 times the median household annual income, higher than all other metropolitans. Most young people in Hong Kong, university graduates included, face much difficulties in buying an apartment. As such, it should be expected that they would benefit from an active government housing policy — even if they do not apply for public housing, an increased supply would lower the cost of private housing units as well, making them more affordable.

On the other hand, CY Leung, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong from 2012-17, was a highly controversial figure. When he ran for office (although the election was not a universal suffrage), he made housing policy his key platform, which initially brought him much support among some intellectuals and professionals. However, he would perhaps be better remembered by his divisive governance, as the Umbrella Movement and the “localism” movement both originated during his term in office. Thus this provides an interesting contrast between the supposedly popular housing policy and his personal character.

The research team successfully surveyed over 1200 respondents. The “experimental” component randomly divided them into three groups. The first group received an information about housing concerns among the youth; the second received the same information plus a cue that housing policy was the priority for Leung’s government; the third group’s cue linked housing policy with the oppositions.

The findings show that politics indeed spills over into support for welfare policies, even one that should be beneficial. Respondents expressed less support for public housing if they were dissatisfied with the political leadership and received the cue that the policy was associated with the government. The support level would be higher if the cue was absent. Before politicians or policymakers initiate “good” policies, perhaps they wish to reconsider their strategies and first cultivate personal support (or at least reduce the level of dislike).


Mathew YH Wong is Assistant Professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the Education University of Hong Kong. His research interests center on income inequality, democracy, and politics of Asia.

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