Donald Tsang

Hong Kong must act now to create a comprehensive population policy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 1:51am

The latest population projections from the Census and Statistics Department put into sharp focus challenges for Hong Kong that we are well aware of but have done little to address. Society is fast ageing, the workforce shrinking, fertility rates are among the lowest in the world and the ratio of females to males is widening. They are matters crucial to our city's growth, development and well-being, yet officials have not been prepared to tackle them head-on. While Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has made poverty and housing strategies a priority, as important is formulating a vision for our city's future.

Come 2041, half of the anticipated 8.47 million Hongkongers will be over the age of 50. There are expected to be 645 economically inactive people - children and retirees - for every 1,000 workers, up from the record low today of 333. Those numbers would be significantly different were domestic helpers to be excluded or if there was a change in Leung's zero-quota policy for mainland women not married to Hong Kong men giving birth here. That there will be so few wage earners financially responsible for so many without incomes is a worrying prospect. These are matters not to be taken lightly, yet successive governments found the problems too difficult to consider.

Leung's predecessor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, revamped the population policy task force by turning it into the Steering Committee on Population Policy in 2007 with the chief secretary in charge, but promised progress reports were never delivered. Despite the consultation processes, reports and concern voiced by think-tanks and academics, there is no direction on healthcare reform, immigration policy, tackling the needs of the elderly, future schooling requirements and how to raise the living standards of those stuck in poverty. Without a far-sighted population policy, we will lurch from one crisis to the next.

Leung has recognised that need, although he has not indicated when work on formulating one will begin. During campaigning for the chief executive's job, he pledged that the steering committee would come up with "short, medium and long-term goals and practical solutions". But he also downgraded responsibility to a deputy chief secretary in a revamped ministerial system that is now in limbo. Raising the profile of our population needs and how they are going to be sustainably attained should be a matter of importance and urgency.

What Hong Kong will be like in coming decades remains uncertain. The economy has to be healthy, the quality of living raised and citizens should be happy. But how those goals are to be attained has never been spelt out. Piecemeal approaches and grand spending projects are not the way forward. A properly thought-out population policy delivered in a timely manner will serve us better.