In population debate, growth for its own sake is no answer

Peter Kammerer says our obsessive focus on the workforce in the population debate is an approach that ignores quality of life

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 October, 2013, 10:08pm
UPDATED : Monday, 28 October, 2013, 11:40pm

The government's latest consultation on population follows a familiar theme. Fertility rates are among the lowest in the world, we're fast ageing, the workforce is shrinking and unless there is lots of new - preferably well-educated - blood, our city will literally shrivel and die.

There are dozens of questions asking what should be done, among them suggestions that there should be incentives to encourage couples to have more children and new labour importation programmes. It's all in the name of ensuring economic growth.

We've heard it all before. Although this is the third consultation in six years and a continuation of a process kick-started by Tung Chee-hwa when he was chief executive in 2002, we've been told that this time the focus is different. Given how vague the document is, finding what that may be is difficult. What is obvious, though, is the message; we need more people and the sooner the better, because if nothing is done, as of 2018, our workforce will begin declining.

Workforce - there's that word again. It keeps coming up in the government's population discussions because economic growth is seen as being supremely important. The more who work, the greater the productivity and profits; companies can expand, there will be more tax revenue and more consumption, and so the circle goes.

This is what economies are about - perpetuating a system. But what if the system is flawed and no longer effective? Perhaps the voices of people are no longer being listened to by their government, or maybe high property prices, pollution and crowded streets are turning citizens away? What happens if people get tired of being thought of purely as a commodity?

These questions should have been raised by the consultation. Making peoples' lives and living conditions better, not promoting economic growth above all else, should have been the driver. There are few among us who want to spend our entire active lives being wage slaves. Most would prefer a reasonable balance of work, rest and recreation and decent conditions in which to partake of each.

Hong Kong, for far too many, is a hard place in which to live and work. Flats are small and cramped, wages low and working hours long. An office job being looked into by a friend last week said much about how companies see employees: It paid HK$9,300 a month for 30-hour weeks and required the employee to be fluent in three languages. My friend laughed to the woman interviewing her and wished her luck in finding the right candidate.

The government knows full well what is needed to ensure a bright future for Hong Kong. A decade of research into population has given many answers; it has handsomely paid researchers and issued thick reports. The Council for Sustainable Development, since its first meeting in April 2003, has advised on a wide range of issues that get to the core of what citizens want and require of their city. Think tanks have offered a similar wealth of valuable data and information. Hong Kong faces pressing issues, but they cannot be resolved by taking a one-dimensional approach. The only organisms that grow for the sake of growth are cancer cells - and they end up strangling and killing life.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post