'Fruit money' rules force the old and destitute back to city
After bidding a tearful farewell to his brother, 75-year-old Leung Pak-yao finally left the village in Zhongshan where he had lived for nearly two decades and returned to Hong Kong.
But it was a painful homecoming: Leung has no family or friends left in Hong Kong and his 71-year old brother is the only person he can rely on.
He returned so that he could get the HK$1,000 old age allowance or 'fruit money' paid to Hong Kong permanent residents provided they spend at least 60 days a year in the city.
His life's savings eaten up by rampant mainland inflation, he relied on his brother's 300 yuan (HK$356) monthly payout from the mainland welfare system. He saw the fruit money as a matter of survival for both of them.
Leung was excluded from the mainland welfare system because he was a Hong Kong resident and unable to get Hong Kong benefits because of what the union group who helped him described as the 'pointless' residence policy.
He was one of 40 elderly Hong Kong people helped by the Federation of Trade Unions to return from Guangdong in the first three months of this year. Last year there were 142.
'Just in Dongguan city, we had eight such cases in 2008 and 10 in 2009. But last year the number jumped to 50,' said Siu Kin-po, head of the federation's Dongguan branch.
'Leung is the third case [we have handled] in March. And we have several other similar cases waiting for our help. Some have been thrown out by their mainland relatives because they ran out of money,' he said.
Leung, a Hong Kong permanent resident who worked in the city for decades, retired in 1993 and expected his savings to support him for the rest of his life. He was wrong.
Siu said most of the elderly people helped by the FTU would not come back to Hong Kong if they had a choice, as they knew that life in the city was going to be extremely lonely and isolated.
Last year, a disabled elderly woman tried to commit suicide with her crutch near the border checkpoint as social workers tried to help her return to Hong Kong.
The FTU estimates that 50,000 to 60,000 elderly Hong Kong people live on the mainland without any government assistance and more and more are returning to live in government-assisted nursing centres.
Siu said the resources Hong Kong spent on these returnees would have allowed them to enjoy a comfortable retirement with friends on the mainland, if it wasn't for government bureaucracy and lack of long-term planning.
'It is pointless for the government to require these people to stay at least 60 days in Hong Kong to get these allowances. [This requirement] is a nuisance to everyone and only leads to a waste of public resources,' Siu said.
He said simply removing the 60-day rule would allow thousands of retired people to meet their basic living costs on the mainland.
'It is also a good choice for the government. Otherwise it will spend much more on these people if they all come back. What is holding up the government? I don't understand. The only explanation is that those top officials have no understanding of real life outside their office,'
Last year, the Hong Kong government relaxed the restrictions on applicants for the old age allowance by reducing the minimum length of stay in Hong Kong from 90 to 60 days a year, but refused to totally lift the requirement.
Lawmaker Peter Cheung Kwok-che, who represents the social welfare sector, said it had not made much of a difference.
'The government is worried about possible abuse of the system if the requirement for a minimum length of stay is completely scrapped. It doesn't want to transfer money into bank accounts of elders who have already passed away,' Cheung said.
Cheung said he expected more elderly Hong Kong people to move back to the city if they did not receive welfare, since they could not afford the rapidly rising living costs on the mainland.
'This will then generate other problems. For example, they may already have given up public housing in Hong Kong and have to reapply for a flat.'