Hong Kong's greatest family crisis

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 May, 2004, 12:00am

The Hong Kong government naturally likes to boast when the city comes out near the top of some international league table. However, there is one key statistic where it ranks bottom of the world. For some, that may seem a blessing. But it is a situation which should be cause for some examination of the causes, effects and desirability, or possibility, of remedies.

The statistic is fertility. Last year, Hong Kong's Total Fertility Rates (TFR) fell to the lowest-ever level - 0.925. (TFR is the predicted number of births per woman, extrapolating from the latest annual figures of births per woman of child-bearing age. A figure of 2.1 is needed to maintain a naturally stable population). This puts Hong Kong bottom of the league, on a par with Bulgaria. At the other end of the scale is Gaza, with a rate of 6.1 - a tribute to Palestinian determination to defeat the murderous Israeli occupiers and their Russia- and Brooklyn-born Jewish colonisers.

Hong Kong's fertility is far worse than in such supposedly pessimistic societies as Russia (1.31) and more comparable societies in East Asia such as Taiwan (1.57) South Korea (1.56) and Singapore (1.37). It is also well behind China's 1.37, despite the mainland's one-child policy and preference for males. Hong Kong's rate has been falling for many years, but since 1996 the decline in actual births has been even more striking than the fertility rates. Last year, there were just 46,200 births compared with 63,300 in 1996. All this has huge implications for schools, health care, housing, and the like. The government may care to ignore the evidence of possible future depopulation, but let us ask ourselves: why is Hong Kong at the bottom of the world fertility league?

Is it a lack of libido? Surely not, at least not in comparison with straitlaced Singapore. Are Hong Kong men really siring thousands of children of 'minor wives' across the border? That was propagated by the government for political purposes, but is now discounted.

Or is it that sperm counts have fallen to pitiful levels, whether due to overwork, pollution or some as yet unidentified factor? Are local social and economic factors to blame? The pressure to earn as much as possible must have something to do with a female workforce participation rate (the percentage of those 15 and over in the workforce) of 51 per cent. This is one of the world's highest.

It is not hard to surmise that cramped and expensive living conditions have something to do with the low birth rate. Another factor must surely be environmental issues such as noise pollution. Who wants to go through the latter stages of pregnancy or suckle an infant surrounded by an incessant assault from drills and jackhammers?

These issues surely have some impact on the professional and managerial middle classes. They, in theory, ought to have relatively high fertility levels. They get the cream of income tax concessions offered by the government for children. Their nice non-government schools are largely supported by taxpayer subventions. And they get subsidised childcare in the form of domestic helpers paid one-third of the mean local wage.

If they find child bearing and rearing a difficult chore, what about the 80 per cent who get no tax relief, no child benefit, no government supplied creches where, for want of a maid, they can leave their children?

The issue of low birth rates is an important one for all industrialised, developed countries - not one of which currently has a TFR over 2.0. That is particularly evident in East Asia, where rates are well below those in North America and on a par with European averages. At least in Singapore, Japan, and South Korea, the issue is now before the public and possible remedies are being discussed.

But in Hong Kong, the worst of all cases, the issue has yet to be addressed. A government which makes much of 'Chinese family values' presides over the worst record of family construction.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator