Hong Kong fails in attempt to halt 20-year slide in birth rate

Researchers claim attempts to reverse decline in the past were misdirected as they prepare to launch the city's biggest demographic survey

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 January, 2013, 10:44am

Researchers about to launch Hong Kong's largest demographic survey say attempts to halt the 20-year decline in the city's birth rate have proved ineffective.

And they suggested alternative policies could have increased the birth rate by nearly a third.

The team at the University of Hong Kong will begin a five-year study after receiving funding of HK$3.7 million from the government's University Grants Committee last month.

But in their preliminary findings released ahead of the policy address today, they questioned repeated appeals by former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen for families with two children to have a third child.

This would potentially have increased the birth rate by only 10 per cent, they said.

Instead, the government would have been better off encouraging childless couples to have one baby and those with one child to have two.

They concluded this could have increased the birth rate by 30 per cent.

Professor Paul Yip Siu-fai, leader of the research team, said: "To go from two to three [children] involves serious considerations about living space and the cost involved. But couples without children or with one child are more willing to give birth if they are encouraged."

At present, more than 60 per cent of the city's married couples have not had children or have had only one child.

The birth rate of Hong Kong has consistently dropped from 1,933 per 1,000 women in 1981 to 1,204 in 2011, below the replacement level of 2,100. It is projected to sink to 1,151 by 2041.

Yip will sit on a steering committee on population policy which will hold its first meeting on Friday. He said the study would also address what the researchers said was a failure to lay out a road map to tackle the issue of the city's ageing population. They will look at the impact of the ageing population on health care services, welfare provision, the labour force and the economy.

Experts had warned that ageing problems would become more apparent from last year as "baby boomers" born after the second world war began turning 60 and entering retirement.

By 2041, it is estimated that a third of the city's population city will be over 65, compared with 13 per cent in 2011.

Co-investigator Alfred Chan Cheung-ming, chairman of the Elderly Commission, said: "We need better housing, education and a better environment to encourage births, and we also need to retain old people with rich experience and knowledge in the workforce."

Yip said past research had proved to be fragmented, with some of it misleading.

He added: "For example, some have created a social stigma against mainland women giving birth in Hong Kong.

"In fact, many of these parents are professionals who are highly educated."