Population policy key to city's future

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 February, 2012, 12:00am


We are only too aware that Hong Kong's population is quickly getting older and that the ratio of men to women is widening. The latest Census and Statistics Department figures also show less well-known trends, such as the average household size falling, more people living alone and fewer people between the prime marriageable ages of 20 and 49 tying the knot. Officials, demographers and sociologists are scratching their heads for reasons, but there is something even more worrying that goes above and beyond the data. The government, despite years of discussion, still does not have a population policy.

That has not stopped grand ambitions and big spending. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has long preached that Hong Kong needs a population of 10 million, the assumption being that the more people, the better placed we will be to face future challenges. The latest government projections say that our population will grow by 1.8 million to 8.9 million by 2039. But it is a figure that has to be put in context, since forecasts have been wildly wrong in the past. None of this seems to take into account the exceedingly low fertility rate, that most babies being born here are to mainland women and that for two of the past three years, more people have left our city than moved here.

The debate over pregnant mainlanders coming to Hong Kong to give birth goes to the heart of the matter. Should we encourage them to use our hospitals by making them welcome, or should we keep them out? The government has veered towards the latter, a view shared by chief executive contenders Henry Tang Ying-yen and Leung Chun-ying. Yet, the automatic permanent residency that the babies get could be part of a strategy to make our city young and vibrant.

Authorities have no idea how many of the children born here to mainland mothers will return for education and health care. They have scarcely prepared for the retirement and medical needs of a population that had a median age of 21.7 in 1971, but is expected to be 47.6 in 2039. Nor does the government appear to have a sense of what the housing requirements may be for the growing numbers who are deciding to live alone, or the elderly who once lived with their children, but are no longer welcome. A government steering committee on population policy was set up in 2007 with Tang as its chairman, but little is known of its work. Tang's platform on population matters is vague. From time to time the matter is raised by officials and lawmakers, although no co-ordinated strategy has been forthcoming. Without such forward thinking, the challenges Hong Kong faces cannot be properly addressed. Nor can the most fundamental matter of all be broached: What sort of a city Hong Kong will, or should, be in coming decades.