Who would have thought Hong Kong would be one of the world's top 10 places to be born in the coming year? Bewildering as it sounds, that is the international community's latest entry in our list of accolades. We ranked 10th among 80 places examined in a study conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a sister company of The Economist. The survey looked at "opportunities for a healthy, safe and progressive life in the years ahead". The ranking probably baffles Hongkongers.
Whether couples want to raise a family is affected by a range of personal and social factors, including age, wealth, education, and the material quality of life they aspire to. The outlook for both the economy and the political situation are also important. In Hong Kong, the socio-economic environment does not stand out as particularly appealing - high property prices, cramped housing, persistent air pollution and a pressure-cooker lifestyle. These characteristics are more likely to deter rather than encourage having a family. Even though there have been positive signs recently, such as a debate on standard working hours and a plan for paid paternity leave, many public policies fail miserably in the family-friendly test.
It is difficult to believe that people's confidence about having children will rise as a result of the study's findings. Oddly enough, our neighbours across the border have long realised that Hong Kong is a good place for a child to begin their life. They take advantage of the Basic Law to obtain permanent residency for their babies. The phenomena has begun to be curbed only recently, due to growing fears that mainlanders will burden our education and welfare systems.
The truth is that our fertility rate remains one of the world's lowest, despite a recent rebound in the birth rate from seven per 1,000 people in 2003 to 12.6 in 2010. The recent decision to bar mainlanders from giving birth in the city has effectively killed what could have been one way to slow down the ageing of the population. By 2041, half the projected population of 8.47 million will be over the age of 50. Without better policies, that demographic trend will only aggravate social and economic problems, and undermine the sustainability of Hong Kong's development. Couples thinking about having children need to be confident about the future. The government has a role to play in ensuring that they are.