A Bubble of Self-Importance

SCMP October 20, 2013

At times, Hong Kong seems to live in its own little bubble with self-important politicians oblivious to where the city stands in the world. A previous column addressed Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's curious attempts to get an audience with the pope. Now we have all and sundry believing that, in international forums, Leung Chun-ying is the equal of the president of a large independent state.

He may appear so at an Apec meeting but the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum is only about economic issues. No one here believes that makes him the equal of President Xi Jinping , so why would he be President Benigno Aquino's equal?

On the subject of which, when did you last hear a president of China apologising for anything, even for mass-scale crimes committed against the Chinese people, let alone for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood or of Filipino tourists in Tiananmen Square? Presidential and similar apologies are reserved for extreme cases of criminality directed by the government itself.

Presidents do not apologise for non-criminal blunders by officials. Do Americans presidents issue personal apologies when foreigners get accidentally killed in a shoot-out involving law enforcement officers? Here in Hong Kong, has the chief executive apologised for the deaths of 36 people in the Lamma ferry disaster, deaths caused in part, according to the inquiry, by government failures to enforce its regulations on boat construction and safety features?

In the Manila bus case, idiotic statements by politicians display an ignorance of the real world, which are no help to the victims of the tragedy, demean Hong Kong in the eyes of foreigners, and do nothing to advance civil compensation claims.

Learning from the rest of the world is something that Hong Kong does not do much of at present. Anti-pollution measures are perhaps the most obvious. But now we may have another issue - how to raise the birth rate, currently one of the lowest in the world.

According to a recent Post report, an advisory committee is recommending that Hong Kong follow the examples of Singapore and Canada in doling out cash as "baby bonuses". This seems a typically Hong Kong approach, as though cash can buy anything. And why look at Singapore and Canada, two countries which have singularly failed to do much to raise fertility rates?

Despite money and massive propaganda, Singapore's fertility rate has risen only marginally, to 1.29. Even that rise may well be accounted for by Singapore's ethnic mix and immigration rate rather than by handouts, and at best the government hopes to get to 1.4 or 1.5, which would put it on a par with Japan, Italy and Greece. Canada's fertility rate of 1.6 is also low compared with the US and northern Europe.

So, which rich countries have fertility rates reasonably close to the 2.1 replacement level? Sweden, Denmark, France, Iceland, the Netherlands, Britain and New Zealand.

The common theme running through these countries is that, like Hong Kong, they have high rates of female participation in the workforce. But, unlike Hong Kong, they not only provide generous cash benefits but, more importantly, job protection for mothers, extended maternity and paternity leave, and free nursery schooling, for example. They also all have high levels of birth outside marriage. Women can have children without committing themselves to one man, with no stigma attached.

Hong Kong has the worst of all worlds - few births outside marriage but a high level of divorces by couples with one or no children. This reality deters reproduction and exacerbates the housing shortage by creating more but smaller households.

In other words, the answer to the fertility issue lies in social as much as spending policies. In the cases of Hong Kong and Singapore, housing costs are also an issue so that a high proportion of household income has to be invested in home ownership rather than breeding the next generation. Thus, even though cheap foreign domestic help is available to many households, one child is often considered as much as family finances can bear.

The whole of East Asia has a baby shortage crisis, now including mainland China, where the fertility rate has kept falling despite relaxation of the one-child policy. The causes are clear: urbanisation and the rising opportunity cost of child-rearing.

Hong Kong has the opportunity to take a lead in addressing the crisis at its roots, not tinkering with ineffective cash bribes. It starts with attitudes of mind: treating women as equals and regarding children as an investment, not a cost. That means much better employment laws, preferences in public housing allocation, a much greater focus of welfare benefits (services as much as cash) on the very young (and very old). It does not mean more tax breaks for the already privileged upper-middle class.

Hong Kong can be a leader if it is truly bold. A government that protects two tycoon television oligopolists clearly fears creative thinking. But the bubble of do-nothing official conceit must be broken if Hong Kong's inventiveness is to thrive and the city is to compete in the real world, not the imaginary one.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator










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