Population changes a challenge for planners

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 February, 2007, 12:00am

The latest by-census figures show that Hong Kong has reached a crucial stage in its development, with a rapidly ageing population, marginal increase in the number of births, falling median household income and fewer people from developed economies coming here to work. There can be no better signal for the government to rethink its policies accordingly. The priority must be to ensure that our city remains an attractive place in which to live and do business.

Many of the problems highlighted by the 2006 population by-census are ones that we already know about. We have long been aware that the median age of the population is rising. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has expressed concern about our persistent low birth rate. And concerns about the wealth gap have been widely debated. What is unnerving is that despite this knowledge, there is little evidence that plans to help our city cope with such challenges are being formulated or implemented with any degree of urgency.

With an increasing number of older people, health care is an increasingly important issue. Yet the process for reforming our increasingly outdated health-care system has long been delayed. This is despite a decade of high-level recommendations, starting with the 1997 Harvard Report. The government is working on plans for change. But a consultation on the crucial question of how health care should be financed was recently postponed. Sustainable development is another issue that authorities have long been discussing. But despite the topic being raised in 1999, by then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, who set the ball rolling by setting up the Sustainable Development Council, a series of consultation processes and reports have, as yet, not led to much action.

Yet the statistics released yesterday clearly define and detail the reasons why the government should be acting decisively rather than dragging its feet on such important matters.

Our population growth, now mainly due to new arrivals from the mainland, has been slowing. Official estimates had anticipated an average annual growth rate of 1 per cent. Plans for infrastructure and other developments have been based on these projections. But the by-census shows that over the past five years the annual average growth rate has been only 0.4 per cent. Our birth rate, among the lowest in the world, is partly to blame; but there is also the matter of fewer than expected mainland people wanting to take up residence here and a declining interest from those in western countries in taking up jobs.

These facts should come as no shock, given that cities such as Hong Kong that are financial and services centres make it attractive for women to delay having families for the sake of careers, plus our relatively high cost of living, air pollution and cramped living conditions. No wonder our population and its composition is changing.

Of as much concern to the government should be the ageing population, with the median age rising from 34 a decade ago to 36 in 2001 and 39 at the by-census. The trend is not substantially different than that for developed regions the world over, but whereas other governments are working towards solutions, Hong Kong is lagging behind. How the medical costs of so many more older people among our population should be dealt with is one issue that should not be left unresolved any longer. But the government appears nonplussed.

Hong Kong has reached a point where the population figure has levelled out. Without the need for development projects to cater for substantial growth, making our city more liveable and attractive has to be the government's priority. There are obviously difficulties ahead, as the latest by-census figures show. But there is no reason why creative solutions cannot be found.

What is now needed is for our leaders to recognise the urgency of determining the way forward - and putting plans into action.