Pro-Natal Official Takes Over in Hong Kong

Steven Mosher
By Joseph A. D'Agostino
PRI Weekly Briefing
11 March 2005
Vol. 7 / No. 10
Reproduced with Permission

The month after he urged Hong Kong couples to have more children, Sir Donald Tsang became acting chief executive of Hong Kong following the retirement of Tung Chee-hwa. Formerly chief secretary for administration, Tsang will govern Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous region subordinated to mainland China, on a day-to-day basis until a committee controlled by China's Communist government chooses a permanent replacement for Tung. Tsang, a Catholic with two sons, could easily be its choice.

In a major departure from the Communist Chinese government line, which enforces a one-child policy on mainland Chinese, Tsang urged Hong Kong couples to have three children apiece in order to counteract falling birthrates and an aging population. He said on a Radio Television Hong Kong program last month, "Hong Kong has one of the lowest total fertility rates in the world and we need to think about how to resolve the problems discouraging people from having children. . . . I think each couple needs to give birth to at least two children to reach the population replacement level. Three will be the best."

Two children are often considered the maximum throughout East Asia, and large numbers of couples will not consider having more than one. Tsang's recommendation runs counter not only to Chinese government policy, but to popular sentiment in this increasingly wealthy part of the world. Still, this did not stop him from being named interim chief executive. Perhaps even China's anti-family Communist leadership recognizes that Hong Kong is in dire straits. In the meantime, the nearby sovereign city-state of Singapore has implemented a host of financial incentives to persuade its low-fertility population to have more children.

Hong Kong, with a population of 7 million, has a fertility rate of .94 children per woman, far below the 2.1 children per woman required to maintain an even population level. Hong Kong's rate is even below those of Italy and Spain, whose people are fast committing national suicide with fertility rates slightly above 1.

It's interesting to note the success of population control efforts everywhere in the world, regardless of cultural or economic differences. Mainland China is poor, but its fertility rate is low after decades of coercion by the government, assisted by the United Nations. Hong Kong and Singapore are rich, but they too have low fertility rates because of urbanization, modernization, and a female population now in the workforce.

Hong Kong had been partially making up its lack of fecundity with immigration from the mainland, but that's no longer working. The number of mainland Chinese seeking to move to Hong Kong has been dropping in the past few years. In just one year, from 2003 to 2004, the number seeking one-way permits to move dropped from 53,000 to 34,000. Experts predict that as economic life continues to improve on the mainland, there will be fewer and fewer people who wish to move to Hong Kong, where the cost of living is among the highest in the world. Hong Kong is so expensive that tiny apartments rent for thousands of dollars U.S. a month. Hong Kong is also somewhat insular, with its own specific English- and Cantonese-speaking culture and a certain distaste for their poor country cousins across the border.

At the same time, young men are fleeing Hong Kong in droves. In the meantime, women are moving into Hong Kong to be maids or to marry wealthier Hong Kong men, leading to a growing gender imbalance that also bodes ill for future fertility.

Hong Kong's government expects the proportion of the population 65 and over to increase to 27% in 2033 from 11.7% in 2003. The median age will jump to 49 from 38. The coming dearth of working-age people and surfeit of retirees means Hong Kong faces the same demographic time bomb as the rest of the developed world. Tsang may well be asking himself: Who will perform the labor in the future? Who will pay the taxes to support retirees' government benefits?

Judging from a poll and Hong Kong news reports, Tsang's goal will be hard to implement. In a poll conducted after Tsang made his comments, 90% of Hong Kong parents surveyed said that having three children was next to impossible. "It was a call greeted with almost universal disdain," reported the Hong Kong Standard on March 4. "More than 95% of 624 mothers interviewed rejected Tsang's call, saying government benefits are not sufficient to support an extra child. Nearly 90% said they will not have more than two children. Financial considerations, especially the high cost of education, is the major concern for couples planning to have children, according to the survey." Currently, parents receive a HK$30,000 (US$3,850) tax allowance per child, but education, especially in the large numbers of private schools, is expensive.

Singapore is well ahead of Hong Kong in offering financial incentives for child-bearing. "Singapore, also beset by a seriously slowing birth rate, offers a wide range of benefits to parents, such as grants for child savings accounts ranging from HK$28,500 and HK$57,000, and even monthly subsidies of about HK$1,900 for babysitting," noted the Standard. "The first two babies each receive HK$15,000 grants, while the third and fourth receive HK$28,500."

The absorption of women out of the home and into workplaces in modern economies and government promises to provide support in old age have made children dispensable economic liabilities in the eyes of most. Mothers don't have time for kids anymore. "The responsibilities of raising a family dilute the earning power of working mothers, discouraging them from having more children," reported the Standard on March 7. "That is the view of 49-year-old mother Tam Fung-hing, who noted the difficulty of having a full-time job as a clerk for 18 years while bringing up two children, now teenagers." She's between a rock and a hard place, telling the newspaper, "I cannot quit my job because I need money to raise the children."

Let's pray Donald Tsang can save Hong Kong from demographic self-destruction.