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Deaths outpaced births in Hong Kong for the first time in 2020. Photo: Bloomberg

ExclusiveHong Kong population decline warning, as provisional census figures show more deaths than births in city for first time

  • Census department figures show 43,100 births compared to 49,800 deaths in 2020
  • Experts predict trend will continue and say city’s leaders need to make population a priority

Hong Kong recorded more deaths than births last year for the first time, in what experts said was a warning of an imminent decline in the city’s overall population.

According to unpublished provisional figures from the Census and Statistics Department obtained by the Post, there were 43,100 newborns and 49,800 deaths in the city in 2020, resulting in a negative natural population increase of about 6,700, the first negative value since official records began in the 1960s.

There were always more births than deaths in the city before last year, with the difference peaking at 91,600 in both 1961 and 1962, before it gradually dropped in recent years to 6,700 in 2018, and 4,300 in 2019.

The negative natural population increase came earlier than the government forecast, which suggested in 2017 the phenomenon would emerge in 2026, before revising that to 2021.

Andy Kwan, director of ACE Centre for Business and Economic Research, discusses the city’s population during an interview. Photo: Winson Wong

Earlier this month, Taiwan and South Korea both reported more deaths than births last year for the first time.

Paul Yip Siu-fai, chair professor in social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong, and Andy Kwan Cheuk-chiu, director of the ACE Centre for Business and Economic Research, both said they believed it was unlikely the city would record positive natural population increases in the near future even after the impact of the coronavirus pandemic had retreated.

“The differences between the number of births and deaths will just get wider,” Yip said.

Kwan said the low birth rate last year could be related to the social unrest in 2019, which dampened couples’ desire to reproduce, while the effect of the pandemic would probably be reflected in the figures released next year.

He said the gap between births and deaths, which has reversed for the first time, would only grow wider if the government did not act to encourage people to have children.

There were 18.5 per cent fewer births in 2020 than the year before, the sharpest drop since a decrease of 37.7 per cent in 2013, when non-permanent residents were barred from giving birth in public hospitals in the city.

The number of births dropped 1.6 per cent, 5 per cent and 7.1 per cent year on year in 2019, 2018 and 2017 respectively.

The decline in the numbers of births last year corresponded to a 36.7 per cent drop in the number of marriages – 28,161 in 2020 compared with 44,522 the year before, according to the Immigration Department.

Hong Kong’s population will be a little smaller, a lot greyer by 2069

Kwan said the negative natural population increase was the first warning sign of depopulation.

“If the number of people leaving the city outnumbered the one-way permit holders from mainland, a real population shrinkage will happen,” he said.

He was referring to the overall population growth, which also takes net migration flows into account, apart from the number of births and deaths. Net migration is the number of the people moving in minus those who moved out.

Professor Paul Yip believes the city’s population growth for 2020 could also be negative. Photo: David Wong

Yip forecast that the overall population growth for 2020 could also be negative, thanks to last year’s dramatic drop in the number of immigrants because of the pandemic.

Kwan also said if continued emigration over political worries outnumbered mainland immigrants, negative growth would be seen in a year.

Last year, the census department projected that Hong Kong’s population would reach a peak of 8.1 million in 2041, after which a shrinkage would follow.

Yip and Kwan, who advised the government on population issues, said the city had not prepared itself for a negative increase.

“Ageing was realised long ago, but we don’t have a good population policy,” Kwan said.

Yip added: “Population policy has never been the government’s top priority … [but] Singapore put the policy as a national agenda, a matter of survival.”

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

Singapore has experienced a downward trend in natural increases since at least 2015. In 2019, it had 39,279 newborns and 21,466 deaths.

Yip suggested the government should try to slow down the recent wave of emigration by easing public concerns over the controversial national security law imposed by Beijing.

The government should also raise residents’ sense of belonging, by providing a family friendly working environment in a bid to promote birth in the long run, he said.

“Singapore has enough foreign workers, and a good labour policy but we don’t,” Kwan said, adding the government’s invitation for young Hongkongers to explore opportunities in the Greater Bay Area would not make sense, and the city should draw people from there instead.
Hong Kong’s demographics are changing. Photo: Winson Wong

A government spokesman declined to comment on the latest demographic changes, because the population estimate for 2020 had yet to be published.

He added the declining births could be attributed to factors including a decreasing marriage rate, delayed marriage, and women giving birth later in life. The government aimed to foster a supportive environment for childbearing, and provide better support for couples.

“The government will closely monitor the impacts of the pandemic and social incidents on the net movement of human capitals and devise strategies to promote and relaunch Hong Kong at the appropriate juncture,” he said.

The census department’s figures will be officially published next month.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: HK reports more deaths than births for first time