Like it or not, Hong Kong’s ageing population means city needs more migrants from mainland China

Local government must work with Beijing to make one-way permits more flexible for those coming from across the border

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 December, 2015, 4:43pm
UPDATED : Monday, 14 December, 2015, 5:49pm

The birth rate does not weigh as heavily as it should in projections of Hong Kong’s population growth. Not only is it below the replacement level needed to maintain the status quo, but last year it fell to 8.6 births per 1,000 people from 13.5 in 2011, according to official statistics. This adds to the importance of the number of mainlanders resettling in the city under the one-way permit quota in maintaining population growth.

A significant decline in take-up of the permits in recent years is reflected in the latest population forecast, prompting the Census and Statistics Department to warn that annual growth is expected to fall from 0.6 per cent in 2011 to 0.2 per cent. The one-way permit scheme is intended for family reunions, such as mainland mothers reuniting with husbands and children in Hong Kong. Census officials told lawmakers they expect take-up in the medium to long term to fall to 100 of the daily maximum of 150, after peaking at 149 in 2012 and slipping to 123 in 2013 and 111 last year.

A crackdown on abuse of the scheme may have had some effect. But given the importance of migration to Hong Kong’s ageing population, the trend warrants serious attention from policymakers. The scheme is still needed to reunite families, since cross-boundary marriages have made up almost 40 per cent of locally registered unions. But there is no question that improving living standards and job and business opportunities on the mainland have dimmed the attraction of Hong Kong, and that anti-mainland sentiment has not helped. Moreover, many people are reluctant to give up their mainland ID card, and the rights that go with it in terms of education, health and property, for a one-way permit, and many would prefer a foreign passport. The mainland authorities may have no plan to revise the existing quota, but if the figures form a pattern they raise the question of whether Hong Kong should negotiate with Beijing on how to better use the scheme – for example, on needed talents who bring with them or can start new households and slow population ageing. Both governments need to be more flexible.