Cramming in more people won't help Hong Kong to grow

Peter Kammerer says to increase our fertility rate and boost the economy, officials should focus on making the city a better place to raise a family

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 August, 2015, 3:44pm
UPDATED : Monday, 17 August, 2015, 3:44pm

Hong Kong's government frets about an ageing population and low birth rate. Our leaders believe we need more people to ensure economic growth. The bigger the population, the higher the level of development, the thinking goes. Throw in a Family Planning Association TV advertisement that talks of families big enough to field a basketball team, and you get a feeling someone is out of touch with reality.

The non-profit association is government subsidised. Its ad, "The choice is yours", has been lambasted in social media since its launch last month. Showing a girl playing a cello, then two children having fun on a sofa, four singing together and lastly, five in basketball gear beside their parents, the mother pregnant, the overarching message is: "How many is enough?" The association complained last week that its ad had been misinterpreted; couples could choose to have as many children as they wanted, but they had to plan carefully.

I'm not buying the explanation. This is the same organisation that, in the 1970s, encouraged smaller families with its highly successful "Two is enough" campaign. With Hong Kong's fertility rate at 1.2 per couple as of June last year, far below the replenishment level of 2.1, there aren't many families with four, five or six kids. Hongkongers are not so ill-informed that they need to be reminded that the small flats and high cost of education limits family sizes. The Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre put it best last year, figuring the cost of raising a child up to university graduation at HK$5.5 million.

An economy will certainly expand in size the more people there are to contribute to it, but that does not equate with prosperity

Governments shouldn't be in the business of determining family sizes; that is a matter for couples to decide. Offering subsidies and "baby bonuses", as some countries do to push up birth rates, is misguided. Making a city a good place to raise a family is the only responsible approach. When couples feel the time is right, they will have children; if not, they won't.

The latest Hong Kong research on the matter, from 2012, found a majority of couples wanted two or more children; 55.5 per cent wanted two, 7.6 per cent three and 1 per cent at least four. But fertility rates don't reflect that sentiment. Economic times have got tougher since then, with housing costs ever-higher, along with school fees. Such costs also keep away potential migrants.

A growing population does not mean economic growth. An economy will certainly expand in size the more people there are to contribute to it, but that does not equate with prosperity. It is the capabilities and skills of a population that matter; growth depends on innovation, knowledge and adaptability. China's economy may have surpassed Japan's both in size and GDP growth, but the average Japanese remains far wealthier than their Chinese counterpart.

Hong Kong's latest population policy review concluded there was a need to increase the quality and quantity "by optimising the demographic structure, slowing down the rate of population ageing as well as enhancing productivity and unleashing the potential labour force". That's saying try everything and anything. It's better to make Hong Kong a place where people want to live, work and raise a family.

There's a line of thought that in developed economies, high population density and low fertility rates go hand in hand. The more people who are crammed into a city and the less affordable its housing, the greater the competition for necessities such as education and jobs. In such circumstances, couples are not eager to have children, and outsiders are wary about living there. Until the mindset of Hong Kong's government changes, don't expect a dramatic turnaround in economic growth.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post