Summoning up courage to change for the better

SCMP May 14 2007

It must be difficult for those who have spent their working lives in power structures steeped in their own sense of superiority and right to rule to change their minds. Policies adopted for pragmatic reasons under one set of circumstances become articles of faith, the dogmas expounded by party chiefs, popes and mullahs.

A few days ago, a senior mainland party official was chastised about a possible surge in the birth rate due to the tendency of some newly rich to ignore the one-child policy. It is a problem that party princelings can in this, as in other matters, flout the policies they impose on others. But buying out of the one-child policy is a minor crime compared with much of the wealth accumulation occurring at the highest levels of the mainland government.

Meanwhile, officials continue to promote a policy that no longer makes sense. Not that the one-child policy ever did make much sense. Other Asian countries, even rural nations such as Thailand, achieved rapid reductions in fertility rates without resorting to anything more oppressive than the provision of condoms and advice. Nor, unlike Chinese communist coercion, did it result in gross demographic distortions such as the fact that there are now 10 per cent more boys than girls in the one to 15 age bracket.

Mainland demographers can see a potentially disastrous future of rapid ageing and a sex imbalance - though the latter may be the death knell of chauvinism. Even if the one-child policy were abandoned tomorrow, it may be too late to make much difference to the fertility rate, as urbanisation offsets the end of forced constraints. Fertility rates in key cities are moving into the ultra-low levels found in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taipei where rates are little over half those needed for replacement.

In Hong Kong, there is an assumption that it can rely forever on importing young mainlanders, and cheap labour from Southeast Asia to look after the elderly. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has at least noted the problem, but a few concessions to help families mainly benefit the higher-income groups who get the tax deductions.

If Mr Tsang, the devout Catholic, wants to make any real progress, he needs to stop having policies dictated either by overpaid, underchallenged senior bureaucrats or by the cartel of property developers, who were his main campaign funders. Instead of showing his administration's Scrooge mentality with attacks on welfare and pensions (other than for civil servants) he should look at developed countries where birth rates have started rising.

Sweden, Norway, France and the Netherlands are heading the Europeans where fertility rates are now in the 1.8 to 1.9 range - almost back to replacement levels. All have generous support systems involving cash payments, charitable leave provision and childcare facilities. All have high rates of female workforce participation. Interestingly, too, they all have high rates of births outside marriage.

Such systems could easily be replicated in Hong Kong and paid for just by ending the perks and pensions of the elite bureaucrats, and stopping the collusive practices of the property developers who have Mr Tsang in their pocket.

At the other end of the life spectrum, the bureaucracy should also stop suggesting that longevity in Hong Kong shows pollution is not a big problem. They should study Russia. Under the Soviets post-1945, there was a huge rise in life expectancy thanks to public-health spending. But this went into rapid reverse when spending collapsed with the Soviet Union, and years of environmental degradation (still minor compared with much of China) caught up with the people. Of course, alcoholism played a big role in Russia's health decline. But there are plenty of lessons that Hong Kong can learn and would learn quickly if it had a leadership better acquainted with the world outside the charmed circle of mutual back-scratchers.





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