With Hong Kong's aversion to anything that smacks of welfarism, it takes an exceptional issue to put cash handouts on the agenda for debate. One such question is the city's birth rate, which is only half of what is needed to keep the population level and halt ageing. This week marks the launch of a consultation to help find ways to encourage more Hong Kong couples to have children, or have more children. Ideas to be raised by members of the government's steering committee on population policy include financial incentives such as baby bonuses, similar to those offered in places such as Singapore, South Korea, Canada and France, among others in Europe. These policies have generally had mixed success but at considerable cost, in some cases through higher taxation.
This should discourage Hong Kong from relying too heavily on them. The city's birth rate is 1.1 children per woman, or 11 per 10 women. To reach the replacement rate of 2.1, nine of every 10 women would have to have two babies on average, and the 10th woman would have to bear three children. That is aiming high in any circumstances. Given the disincentives such as cramped, expensive housing and the cost of raising a child, the price to overcome them would be eye-watering.
Singapore's recent population white paper, calling for a 30 per cent rise by 2030, through attracting young, well-educated foreigners, may point in the right direction. It was not well received by many Singaporeans but Hong Kong has already had a taste of it through the inflow of mainlanders, a homogenous natural future source of population. In this respect, the recent call by pan-democrat lawmakers Gary Fan Kwok-wai and Claudia Mo Man-ching for one-way family re-union permits for mainlanders to "get to the root of housing problem" sends the wrong message in terms of compassion for compatriots and the city's long-term interests.
In striving for a competitive growth model, Hong Kong cannot be constrained by negative perceptions about housing and education. Rather, it should address them with a younger, family-oriented population in mind. The city needs vibrant immigration and social policies to confidently face the future. Targeted assistance to lighten the burden of child-rearing has its place. But it is only part of what should be a visionary policy based on an accurate picture of society's future trends.