Baby steps not enough for population policy
Alice Wu welcomes the population policy debate, but says officials must first convince us they are serious about making major changes
We have been talking about a population policy in this city for years. The reasons behind our ridiculously low birth rate is as obvious as they are numerous. It all comes down to our shift in attitude to demand a better qualify of life, at least for our future generations.
People here aren't having babies primarily because there simply isn't enough room in a regular home to house a young family, and the housing issue has been plaguing Hong Kong for years. Granted, the problem is complex. It is easy to see why it tops the list of reasons for the low fertility rate. The lack of space and the astronomical price tag that comes with purchasing a home make for great disincentives.
Educators often talk about giving children the room to nurture their development and talent. Here in Hong Kong, where space is scarce, people naturally shy away from having space-hoarding babies.
In some cases, Hong Kong babies probably don't get to learn to crawl because there isn't room to facilitate that developmental milestone: they go straight from being horizontal to being upright. It might make sense in "evolutionary" terms - we adapt to having virtually no space. But many feel it's not the ideal environment for children. And so, to work for that extra few square feet of living space for a baby, people work harder, longer and spend more time investing; in other words, to better provide for their family, parents or would-be parents have to make themselves increasingly scarce - physically, mentally and emotionally - for their family. And that is the mother of all ironies of modern-day life.
Employers have long capitalised on this aspiration to better provide for the family. Employees work longer hours and endure more stress without compensation for a sense (sometimes a false one) of job security. And so the workplace becomes increasingly unfriendly to family life and work hours get excruciatingly long.
The situation at home hasn't got any easier, either. Our education system doesn't encourage people to become parents. The competition is harsh, the stress is enormous, and it's extraordinarily expensive. Compound that with the lack of time available outside work, the growing wealth gap, and a whole list of everyday life stresses that include ageing parents, inflation, the increasing cost of living, wage stagnation, pollution and, more recently, lack of choice in free entertainment, and it isn't hard to understand why people aren't procreating.
The government's launch of its public consultation on population policy is nonetheless a good thing. It's an opportunity for all to look seriously at an issue that will affect our future.
The chief secretary may be right - you can never give people enough cash to raise a child. But if the government is serious - as the ramifications of the city's falling birth rate and ageing population are - it must be prepared to go beyond giving incentives in the form of tax breaks and subsidies.
It must be prepared to make major overhauls across policy bureaus to realign its priorities with those of residents. Piecemeal policy changes won't get results because our low birth rate is the result of a cumulation of different social ills.
If the government can convince the people of its commitment to provide them with a better tomorrow, that will give them the best incentive to invest in their own future.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA