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Ageing society

New data from CIA prompts welfare minister to suggest Hong Kong might now have the lowest fertility rate in the world

Central Intelligence Agency ranks city as fourth lowest after Taiwan, Macau and Singapore, but Dr Law Chi-kwong suggests that might change if mainland mothers and domestic workers are taken into account

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 August, 2018, 6:38pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 August, 2018, 9:22pm

Hong Kong could have the lowest fertility rate in the world if only births from local women are assessed, the city’s labour and welfare minister warned on Sunday, and said more policies were needed to encourage births.

This came as data published by the Central Intelligence Agency World factbook, ranked Hong Kong fourth – after Taiwan, Macau and Singapore – lowest in the world in terms of fertility rates, at just 1.19.

Writing in his weekly blog, Dr Law Chi-kwong said the figure would be much lower if the 9 to 10 per cent of babies born to non-permanent resident mainland women and Hong Kong spouses, as well as domestic workers, were excluded from the count.

“We should be aware that this figure includes babies born to mainland mothers and to foreign domestic helpers, whom are not included the total local female population,” he said.

There are about 5,000 to 6,000 mainland mothers married to permanent residents whose children comprise about nine to 10 per cent of the fertility rate. There are also about 380,000 domestic helpers, almost all of them women, in the city.

“In short, the low fertility rate in Hong Kong may not be fourth lowest in the world, but the lowest. So, should we adopt policies to encourage fertility?” he wrote, without citing specific measures.

Why Hong Kong’s birth rate is falling, and how sub-fertile couples can conceive

Despite a slight rebound in recent years, fertility has been declining since the 1980s and has been consistently below the rate needed for the population to replace itself.

While previous administrations have pledged not to encourage “fertility by governance”, labelling such decisions one of personal choice, Law said it could be time to review whether existing policies were making Hongkongers reluctant to have children. The city is already facing a rapidly ageing population and shrinking workforce.

Total fertility rate, or TFR, measures the average number of children born to every 1,000 women if they lived to the end of their reproductive age – 15 to 49 years – and bore children at the respective rate of their age group. Official statistics put the figure at 1.12 in 2016.

It is different from the crude birth rate, which compares the average annual number of births per 1,000 people in a population each year. Hong Kong’s crude birth rate was 8.3 per 1,000 people in 2016.

Law said his bureau would have to focus on changing labour and welfare policies that helped dismantle obstacles to childbearing and help “render the decision to remain childless more selective and less out of necessity”.

“The objective effect is to ensure the fertility rate will not continue to decline, and even better, to rebound,” he said.

Recent policy tweaks include a proposed move to raise statutory paternity leaves from three days to five.

Hong Kong population growth hits nine-year low as more people leave city

Professor Chou Kee-lee, chair professor of social policy at Education University, agreed the real fertility rate was likely to be much lower, but was sceptical about any policy being able to reverse the trend.

“It is very difficult to design policy to raise fertility rates, at least substantially, because people decide not to have children for different reasons; money just being one of them,” he said. “It could be the education system, housing problems, environmental pollution, focusing on just one would be selection bias.”

He said most places, including Singapore had tried every means to encourage fertility, but to no avail.

The explosive impact of falling birth rates

The only thing Hong Kong could do was to either raise the retirement age, or like Singapore, import more labour.

Last month, a study by the Youth IDEAS under the Federation of Youth Groups, found that almost two in 10 Hongkongers between the ages of 20 and 39 did not want to have children at all, with costs, the responsibility of parenting, and unaffordable housing cited as the top reasons.

A report reviewing the long-term development of the city’s childcare services is expected to be completed within the next two months. The government is also reviewing the policy on statutory maternity leave.