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.
Please Have Three Children
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. 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.
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. At the same time, young men are fleeing Hong Kong in droves. In the meantime, women are moving into Hong Kong t0 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 laces the same demographic time bomb as the rest of the developed world.
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.”
Children Become Liabilities
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. Let’s pray Donald Tsang can save Hong Kong from demographic self-destruction.