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  • Dec 20, 2014
  • Updated: 8:10am
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 October, 2013, 6:31am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 October, 2013, 6:31am

Hong Kong's little bubble of self-importance

Philip Bowring says its handling of the Manila bus tragedy aftermath and the proposal on how to raise the fertility rate suggest Hong Kong is not learning lessons from the real world


Philip Bowring has been based in Asia for 39 years writing on regional financial and political issues. He has been a columnist for the South China Morning Post since the mid-1990s and for the International Herald Tribune from 1992 to 2011. He also contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal, www.asiasentinel.com, a website of which he is a founder, and elsewhere. Prior to 1992 he was with the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review, latterly as editor.

At times, Hong Kong seems to live in its own little bubble with self-important politicians oblivious to where the city stands in the world. A previous column addressed Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's curious attempts to get an audience with the pope. Now we have all and sundry believing that, in international forums, Leung Chun-ying is the equal of the president of a large independent state.

He may appear so at an Apec meeting but the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum is only about economic issues. No one here believes that makes him the equal of President Xi Jinping, so why would he be Philippine President Benigno Aquino's equal? On the subject of which, when did you last hear a president of China apologising for anything, even for mass-scale crimes committed against the Chinese people, let alone for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood or of Filipino tourists in Tiananmen Square? Presidential and similar apologies are reserved for extreme cases of criminality directed by the government itself. 

Presidents do not apologise for non-criminal blunders by officials. Do Americans presidents issue personal apologies when foreigners get accidentally killed in a shoot-out involving law enforcement officers? Here in Hong Kong, has the chief executive apologised for the deaths of 36 people in the Lamma ferry disaster, deaths caused in part, according to the inquiry, by government failures to enforce its regulations on boat construction and safety features?

In the Manila bus case, idiotic statements by politicians display an ignorance of the real world, which are no help to the victims of the tragedy, demean Hong Kong in the eyes of foreigners, and do nothing to advance civil compensation claims.

Learning from the rest of the world is something that Hong Kong does not do much of at present. Anti-pollution measures are perhaps the most obvious. But now we may have another issue - how to raise the birth rate, currently one of the lowest in the world.

According to a recent Post report, an advisory committee is recommending that Hong Kong follow the examples of Singapore and Canada in doling out cash as "baby bonuses". This seems a typically Hong Kong approach, as though cash can buy anything. And why look at Singapore and Canada, two countries which have singularly failed to do much to raise fertility rates? 

Despite money and massive propaganda, Singapore's fertility rate has risen only marginally, to 1.29. Even that  rise may well be accounted for by Singapore's ethnic mix and immigration rate rather than by handouts, and at best the government hopes to get to 1.4 or 1.5, which would put it on a par with Japan, Italy and Greece. Canada's fertility rate of 1.6 is also low compared with the US and northern Europe.

So, which rich countries have fertility rates reasonably close to the 2.1 replacement level? Sweden, Denmark, France, Iceland, the Netherlands, Britain and New Zealand. 

The common theme running through these countries is that, like Hong Kong, they have high rates of female participation in the workforce. But, unlike Hong Kong, they not only provide generous cash benefits but, more importantly, job protection for mothers, extended maternity and paternity leave, and free nursery schooling, for example. They also all have high levels of birth outside marriage. Women can have children  without committing themselves to one man, with no stigma attached.

Hong Kong has the worst of all worlds - few births outside marriage but a high level of divorces by couples with one or no children. This reality deters reproduction and exacerbates the housing shortage by creating more but smaller households.

In other words, the answer to the fertility issue lies in social as much as spending policies. In the cases of Hong Kong and Singapore, housing costs are also an issue so that a high proportion of household income has to be invested in home ownership rather than breeding the next generation. Thus, even though cheap foreign domestic help is available to many households, one child is often considered  as much as family finances can bear.

The whole of East Asia has a baby shortage crisis, now including mainland China, where the fertility rate has kept falling despite relaxation of the one-child policy. The causes are clear: urbanisation and the rising opportunity cost of child-rearing. 

Hong Kong has the opportunity to take a lead in addressing the crisis at its roots, not tinkering with ineffective cash bribes. It starts with attitudes of mind: treating women as equals and regarding children as an investment, not a cost. That means much better employment laws, preferences in public housing allocation, a much greater focus of welfare benefits (services as much as cash) on the very young (and very old). It does not mean more tax breaks for the already privileged upper-middle class.

Hong Kong can be a leader if it is truly bold. A government  that protects two tycoon television oligopolists clearly fears creative thinking. But the bubble of do-nothing official conceit must be broken if Hong Kong's inventiveness is to thrive and the city is to compete in the real world, not the imaginary one.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator


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This article is now closed to comments

Well said. We tend to forget that Hong Kong is not in the first rank of Chinese cities - in terms of size, it's not even in the top 10 - and our "Chief Executive" is, in reality, simply a mayor.
"...Women can have children without committing themselves to one man, with no stigma attached..."
What a stupid comment!
The main reason women in the UK are able to have children out of wedlock is because society picks up the cost of housing, feeding, clothing, etc. etc., of the single woman and her offspring. It is called the Welfare State and it is what is bankrupting Western Society.
Also the suggestion that Canada does not have job protection/extended maternity leave is also nonsense. A mother has 12 months maternity leave prior to returning to the same job - the most generous in the world!
As usual, the once a week voice of reason on these pages...
Except for the fact that he earns over HKD 5m a year, one and half times the salary of the president of the USA.

His recent visitor, Mayor Boris Johnson of London, earns just under GBP 143k per annum. That is about a third of what our Chief Nitwit takes home. And while Boris has his own streak of idiocy, I would still rather have him in charge than the collection of clueless clowns that makes up Hong Kong's ExCo.
General gist of old 'Borings column is correct -- even though he cites some dubious examples as usual. Here is what I think he is saying -- there is no one solution to complicated problems, that's why they are complicated. Our gov has a tendency to employ many solutions, but those solutions are rarely unified and so appear as singular and incomplete answers to complex problems. This article is about cash bonuses paid to increase child birth, but this action alone will not be enough, because as Bowring points out there are many causes. Gov needs to tackle other issues at same time like housing affordability, spiraling schooling costs, and the rising wage inequality in our society. These are not the only issues.
So this is a tough problem and will require thoughtful analysis and probably some trial and error. This i think is the basic point the author is making and it's correct -- even if you disagree with one or more of his silly analogies.
"baby bonuses. This seems a typically Hong Kong approach, as though cash can buy anything". Don't demean HK. The writer himself said that Singapore and Canada pursued these bonuses, so why criticize only HK? I am surprised that as a writer of the region, Philip Bowring is not aware of the existence of these bonuses in Australia too. So, still a 'typical HK approach'?
The issue of TV licenses may just be a business consideration, not necessarily 'fear' of 'creative thinking'. That was a bit of 'creative thinking' on Mr Bowring's part, unless he knows something I don't.
On the matter of an apology from the Philippines' President, the public demanded this, but when CY does so, the author calls it 'idiotic statements'. The Govt is between a rock and a hard place.
The problem is that generally, ALL in HK feel the world is out of step with us! Now that's OK if it is for HK consumption only... But when that attitude meets the outside world, then the problems show up clearly. The idea that it is HK which is out of step with the rest of the world, is an alien concept to us in HK....
Philip Bowring wrote "self-important politicians oblivious to where the city stands in the world" ... well that is not just politicians, it is most, if not all, Honkies.
Just because we are a city state with a dense population and lots of cash does not mean that what we do is 'normal' by any stretch of the imagination. What Hongkies take for 'normal' is mind boggling to most in the rest of the world and they cannot even imagine such conditions or circumstances as exist here.
Yes Philip, HK lives in a bubble..... but few recognise it and fewer still appreciate the consequences for us in the long term, especially when dealing with those outside the bubble.....
Bowring for CE.
Except that many HK people believe that they are not part of China and hope for autonomy. That would make the Chief Executive a head of state.
By hook or by crook :-)


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