Outlining the Hope Mechanism – The Case of Hong Kong’s Culture of Homeownership | TSANG Chung Kin

by Critical Asia

by TSANG Chung Kin, June 2023】


In recent years, crises and social immobility have increasingly become “the permanent state of exception” (Hage, 2009) that pervades our daily existence (Kleist and Jansen, 2016). The outbreak of Covid-19, the Russia-Ukraine war, and local social movements in Hong Kong exemplify unpredictable crises that disrupt the ways of living and livelihoods of people locally and around the world. Meanwhile, the worldwide decline of upward social mobility, regular threats of downsizing and delayering, and the recent advent of AI and its potential impact on job insecurity exacerbate the collective sense of being stuck (Hage, 2009). These circumstances make it challenging for people to plan ahead for the future and envision themselves ascending the social ladder as the previous generation did.

Given the current global and local context, studies on hope and its relationship to our imaginings of the future amid uncertainty and immobilization has gained increasing significance. This article draws from the author’s work (Tsang, 2021) and utilizes examples from Hong Kong’s culture of homeownership to elucidate the concept of the hope mechanism. This notion posits that hope can manifest in multiple configurations under varying social and historical contexts. Employing this concept allows for the examination and analysis of how the social configuration of hope evolves over time.

Hope and its Mechanism

Hope functions as both a verb, denoting the act of anticipation, and a noun, representing the belief in achieving goals. These aspects are articulated and mediated through various discourses. At the societal level, hope is disseminated through diverse mechanisms. For example, modern capitalism depends on the dream of upward mobility to distribute hope which is considered the key to establishing a lasting structure of capital accumulation that stabilizes the population amidst significant social inequality (Hage, 2003, p. 14).

Although the mechanisms for generating hope of upward social mobility can be linked to historical precedents, such as the imperial examination in ancient China (Fairbank and Goldman, 2006, pp. 94–95, 104.) or serving the lord in early medieval Europe (Carocci, 2011, p. 379), the contemporary notion of a relatively widespread and egalitarian belief in the opportunity for social mobility is comparatively novel. This belief corresponds with the concepts of self-reliance and the importance of individual effort in shaping a different future. Such beliefs are often cited as key characteristics differentiating modern societies from traditional ones (Webster, 1990, pp. 49-53).

Recent developments in hope studies advocate for historicizing and closely examining how goals are organized in the study of hope (Jansen, 2016). For example, Robbins (2016) suggests that instead of posing the question “what can I hope?”, we should scrutinize the historical foundations of our hope. “Grounds” in this context here refer to the conditions of possibility—specific items and goals within the foreseeable future—that propel individuals forward. The concept of the hope mechanism is developed in this vein, investigating the relatively coherent social configuration of subject positions, life goals, and temporal mapping of the future.

  1. The hope mechanism presumes that individuals are subjects possessing “social beings” (Hage, 2004, p. 153), signifying that they are active agents with agency and are situated within a society that influences their socialization process. Moreover, the quality of “being” is crucial to these individuals, encompassing aspects such as meaningfulness, satisfaction, and fulfillment (ibid.). Consequently, individuals endeavor to pursue and amass a greater quality and quantity of being in their social lives, with hope representing their expectation of attaining increased meaningfulness in the future. Different societies have their own value systems, which determine which types of social subjects are more likely to achieve this, and which types may have limited chances or none at all.
  2. The mechanism incorporates a life goal as an object of hope, grounded in a collective comprehension of a good life. A good life may include social promises, such as “upward mobility, job security, political and social equality, and lively, durable intimacy” (Berlant, 2011, p. 3). It may also stem from the pleasure of self-improvement and bodily enhancement (Sennett, 2008). the feasibility of achieving this life goal is vital in distinguishing it from mere daydreaming. Therefore, it necessitates a connection between the present subject and the future object.
  3. The mechanism for accomplishing life goals encompasses temporal mapping, with specific paths and a broader social imagination of the opportunity structure (also referred to as the social plane) connecting the present and future. For instance, during the post-war development of capitalism, a career path was envisioned to guide individuals towards a middle-class good life within a relatively stable social opportunity structure. With a clear path and a stable social plane, one could predict when they would achieve their life goal. Various discourses can articulate this connection to the future in diverse ways. Progress can be rapid or gradual, enjoyable or unpleasant. Stationary states can convey distinct meanings and affects, such as satisfaction with tranquility and stability or discontentment due to stagnation. Uncertainty can be viewed as risky or liberating. The historical and empirical examination of these articulations and their relationship to discourse is essential.

In summary, a hope mechanism concerns how active agents identify a path to reach their desired life goals within a social context. Although this may appear simple, alterations to these components can significantly influence how the social configuration of hope may change, as will be demonstrated in the subsequent discussion.

The Case of Hong Kong’s Culture of Homeownership – The Changes in the Hope Mechanism

The following section provides a brief summary of the culture of homeownership in Hong Kong. This example illustrates how the social configuration of hope changes over time, showing that hope is never static or universal. In other words, discussions of hope and related topics should be contextual and pay attention to the potential for change, even though the aspiring object may apparently be the same, as we shall discuss below for homeownership.

Religion, state, and the market are often cited as sources of hope. However, unlike other societies with a strong religious tradition (as in the case of Moscow discussed by Zigon (2009)), religion has had a lesser impact on hope in Hong Kong’s Chinese society. Moreover, the discourse of the state had a relatively weak influence during the British colonial regime. Instead, the dominant cultural codes in Hong Kong were those of the market during the colonial era (Mathews, Lui, and Ma, 2007), which have had a lasting effect until today.

Against this background, homeownership is a prominent aspiration for people in Hong Kong. It represents their hopes and future aspirations through a materialistic approach. In contrast to other societies, such as the UK and Japan, Hong Kong’s housing culture is characterized by the inseparable connection between homeownership and property investment (Ronald, 2006, p. 135). According to multiple surveys conducted in the late 2000s and early 2010s, homeownership consistently ranked as the top life goal (HKUPOP, 2009, 2013, 2014, 2015; Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre, 2010). This is noteworthy considering that Hong Kong has been the world’s most unaffordable housing market since 2010 for thirteen consecutive years (Demographia, 2023).

Since the late 1970s, homeownership has become a more attainable and common aspiration for people in Hong Kong. This was due to the relaxation of mortgage requirements and the introduction of a subsidized homeownership program by the colonial government (Tsang, 2021, pp. 56-62). However, the mechanism of hope associated with homeownership has changed significantly between the 1970s-1990s and the 2010s, even though the object of hope – homeownership – appears to be the same on the surface.

In the hope mechanism of the 1970s-1990s, the social plane was considered relatively open, allowing individuals to exercise “initiative and choice” (Lui & Wong, 1993, p. 22) to explore different paths and “make a better living” (ibid., pp. 23-24), despite recognizing that society was far from perfect. Meanwhile, individuals were imagined as self-reliant and capable of achieving homeownership as tangible evidence of successfully attaining middle-class status and lifestyle. The path to home ownership was relatively concrete and steady, with the colonial government providing subsidized homeownership as a stepping stone between public rental housing and private homeownership. This housing ladder became the path that people believed themselves to be able to move forward on. Overall, the hope mechanism gives individuals a sense of being the active author of their lives as the future unfolds, and the housing ladder provides a reliable path towards achieving a middle-class lifestyle in an open social environment.[1]

It is important to remember that the hope mechanism described above is historically contingent and developed gradually. Each component has its own historical trajectory and was brought together by chance under homeownership. In the early 1970s, the belief in open opportunities was absent but gradually turned around throughout the decade. The belief in self-reliance has its roots in the 1950s, when the refugee experience encountered limited social welfare in the post-war colony. Since the 1950s, real estate had long been considered a good investment, but homeownership only became a more common housing choice since the mid-1970s. The middle-class lifestyle had already emerged in the late 1960s alongside the construction of the first large-scale private housing estate. However, the housing ladder was only fully established since the mid-1980s.

In the mid-2010s, prior to the social movement and COVID outbreaks of 2019, the social plane was considered stagnant, with economic and political developments slowing down. Homeownership remains a highly desirable life goal for Hong Kong people, ranking at the top of their aspirations. However, the way hope is configured has changed. The meaning of homeownership as a life goal has shifted from an optimistic dream of middle-class upward mobility to a defensive, conservative strategy for achieving a sense of security in the face of social and political immobility and insecurity. While individuals as social subjects still emphasize self-reliance, they now see their homeownership as a financial safety net. This includes scaling down to a cheaper apartment, re-mortgage, and reverse mortgage to protect themselves from the precarious world of work and limited social welfare.

Additionally, the housing ladder in the 2010s has been disrupted by the cessation of subsidized homeownership schemes between 2003 and 2011, as well as skyrocketing housing prices since 2009 that are unaffordable for ordinary people. In this context, a new discourse has emerged: “waiting for the coming crisis,” which articulates a new relationship between crisis and social immobility. Now, crisis is seen as a magical solution to break through stagnation because it can drive down housing prices. This presents a once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunity to acquire homeownership as a financial asset at a lower and reasonable price, transforming the way we imagine the path forward from a relatively concrete housing path to an abstract rupture.[2]


This article demonstrates that hope can take on various forms and combinations through the use of the concept of the hope mechanism. It suggests that hope can be remade and rearticulated into different mechanisms. Currently, the materialistic approach to hope may still be dominant in Hong Kong. However, this is not a static and unchangeable situation. In recent years, a new turn to post-materialism has emerged, which emphasizes the preservation of cultural heritage, local farming and self-care. These alternatives present new possibilities for hope in the midst of local and global crises and social immobility, and are worth exploring in future research.

TSANG Chung Kin, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Hong Kong Shue Yan University


[1] For a detailed historical discussion, please refer to Tsang (2021) Chapter 3.

[2] For more details of this discussion, please refer to Tsang (2021) Chapter 5.


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