Growing need for population policy

SCMP January 22 2012

The issue of mainland women swamping hospital maternity and emergency facilities is a direct result of the cluelessness of government policy on all population issues. After aligning itself with what appeared to many Chinese and almost all non-Chinese to be racist attitudes on domestic helpers' possible right to permanent residency, there may now be a danger that it will seek yet another 'interpretation' of the Basic Law to meet its administrative and political convenience, as happened in 1999.

The Basic Law is quite explicit on the rights to permanent residence of all Chinese citizens born in Hong Kong. Article 24(1) says permanent residents shall be: 'Chinese citizens born in Hong Kong before or after the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.'

But the Basic law was equally explicit about the permanent residence rights of all 'Persons of Chinese nationality born outside Hong Kong' to permanent residents. There were no exceptions. The 1999 'interpretation' issued by the National People's Congress deemed white to be black and excluded large numbers of mainland-born Chinese offspring of Hong Kong residents. So that could happen again.

It is worth recalling that, in order to justify this appeal to the NPC, the government trashed the reputation of its own Census and Statistics Department, which came up with an estimate of 1.67million mainland children flooding into Hong Kong. It said some 700,000 were immediately eligible for residency, more than double its estimate just three years earlier. It also made a fuss about schools being swamped by these offspring.

More recently, the scaremongering has been applied to domestic helpers to justify the Immigration Department's breach of the Basic Law by adding a qualification to the unqualified right under the law for non-Chinese to become permanent residents after at least seven years and if they 'have taken Hong Kong as their place of permanent residence'.

So what will it now do with the mainlanders arriving to give birth? It is not clear whether creating a quota was to bring revenue to Hong Kong hospitals and medical personnel, or whether there is a deliberate policy to compensate for Hong Kong's exceptionally low fertility rate in this way.

The chief executive has grandiose ideas for increasing Hong Kong's population, as though bigger was always better, and the government's own estimates of population growth have long been way ahead of reality. The current forecast of 8.89million by 2040 assumes either a sharp rise in local fertility rates or that a high proportion of those being born to mainland parents will come to live here permanently. Both are speculative.

Forecasting growth accords with prioritising the interests of the development and construction industries at the expense of public health. As there is no official policy, or even debate, on population and the government has no control over the mainland's issue of one-way permits, one can only guess at what, if anything, is in the minds of officials.

The problem now is not just that of overstretched maternity facilities, which could be easily addressed by stricter limits on permitted maternity entry and more vigilance at the border. More problematic is a longer-term issue: the government has only the vaguest idea of how many of these children will come to school here or want to work here.

Hong Kong will need a flow of migrants to stop the median age of the population rising too steeply. But it also needs to be aware of the consequences of importing large numbers of people for whom Hong Kong's liberal traditions and Cantonese language may be alien. The more that babies born in Hong Kong are educated here, the better. Given that Hong Kong's education system has more capacity than it has pupils, we should encourage those born to mainland parents to stay and be educated here; they would be an asset, not a burden.

The corollary should be that the parents of these babies also get one-way permits so they stay and bring up their children here. It should surely not be beyond the Hong Kong government's power to persuade the mainland to give it a say in the issue of one-way permits and thus accommodate these parents as part of the daily quota of 150.

It is hard to imagine the local fertility rate rising enough to offset the need for an inflow of people. Those causes for the low rate are obvious: the high cost of housing, which makes two incomes essential for most households; the lack of funding for nursery schools; miserable levels of maternity leave; and inadequate job protection for those giving birth. In addition, there is the stigma of single parenthood, though many women might want to have children if they could remain independent.

One feature now is that there are only 889 men for every 1,000 women in Hong Kong and this is expected to fall to 744 men per 1,000 women by 2039. The reluctance of Hong Kong women to marry local men (or vice versa) is one reason, and this has caused a steep rise in the number of mainland brides. This trend may boost gross domestic product and has helped the fertility rate rise slightly, but it demonstrates an increasingly lopsided society dependent on brides with educational levels below the local norm.

The mainland maternity issues cannot be addressed permanently without considering these bigger demographic issues - or again trashing the Basic Law's promises.




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