Hong Kong can't ignore social impact of mainland integration
Belinda Hui says that Hong Kong needs to act now to address the multifaceted consequences and social impact of a policy of integration with the mainland if tensions are to be kept in check
The latest relaxation of travel controls for millions of non-permanent residents of Shenzhen to visit Hong Kong has led to a public outcry about its possible effects on our already overloaded city. This is not a single case of inadequate planning on mainland-Hong Kong integration; rather, it's part of a fraught process that began over 10 years ago.
In fact, since the handover 15 years ago, the integration of Hong Kong and the mainland has been at the top of the agenda for both governments. Conflicts have arisen due to our different cultures, perceptions and orientations. Cross-border travel has led to new social issues, including having an impact on social welfare, medical care and education, as well as youth problems.
According to statistics released by the Immigration Department, the number of babies born to non-local parents increased from 620 in 2001 to 35,736 in 2011, accounting for 37 per cent of births in Hong Kong.
As the new school term gets under way, more than 17,000 children will cross the border every day to go to school in Hong Kong. The number is expected to further increase. Although the government has launched some measures such as enlarging school bus parking spaces and undertaking immigration clearance on school buses, these are still far from enough.
Parenting and family relationships are also issues that need to be addressed, as the breakdown of some cross-border marriages has created problems, including the legal rights of divorcees and the custody of their children.
In another worrying trend, more Hong Kong youths are taking advantage of the convenience of cross-border travel to take drugs in Shenzhen, where drugs are cheaper and there are fewer police raids.
Further, some Hong Kong elderly who had chosen to retire on the mainland have started moving back to the city in recent years because of the higher medical costs and inflation on the mainland.
This two-way movement of people between Hong Kong and the mainland will only increase, in tandem with families' needs for work and education. However, Hong Kong's social system has not yet prepared itself to cope with such a large influx of mainlanders and potential Hong Kong residents.
Many ways have been suggested to relieve this pressure on society: working with schools to help children overcome language barriers; providing retraining programmes for the unskilled; creating services and a community network for needy cross-border families. Local schools and welfare organisations are working really hard on it, but without adequate policy support from the government.
The government ought to fully recognise that economic and social development must go hand in hand. Formal communications with the mainland government should be initiated immediately to work out long-term social policies, with overall consideration given to the integration issue and national planning. Early planning, the identification of needs and intervention are therefore necessary to prevent social problems getting worse.
We need a platform for co-operation, where solutions can be suggested, particularly with relation to cross-border families and students, as well as crime and drug abuse. A good candidate is the "Hong Kong/Guangdong expert group on social welfare co-operation" under the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement; if the group's membership is strengthened with members of civil society and the welfare sector, it could be the right platform to address these social problems.
Another idea to consider is a relaxation of the rules, to allow Hong Kong nongovernmental organisations to work in the Pearl River Delta region to cater to the needs of cross-border families. We realise that a number of local people are unhappy with mainlanders giving birth here as they think these mainland parents and children are using up Hong Kong's resources. But the fact is that these children already have the right to become permanent residents. Hence, adequate support like education and welfare services should be provided if we want them to be nurtured as useful members of society and boost our workforce. This is not a policy issue that can be avoided or ignored.
The Hong Kong government ought to strive for a good balance between the pace of integration and adequate provision of services for both Hongkongers and mainland people. Otherwise, not only will tensions rise further, the social development of Hong Kong may also hit a bottleneck.
Belinda Hui King-fai is chief officer (international and mainland China affairs) at The Hong Kong Council of Social Service