Who wants to have a baby? Not some Hong Kong couples, who cite gender inequality, costs and city’s uncertain future
- Among obstacles for some women are ‘traditional Asian male’ values, leaving childcare burden to wives
- With fewer births than deaths, city’s dire baby shortage is only going to worsen, experts warn
Paul Yip Siu-fai saw the writing on the wall for Hong Kong’s baby crisis a long time ago.
Decades of watching the city’s couples shrink from having babies has left him convinced the deteriorating situation has become too dire to turn around.
Last year, for the first time since records began in the 1960s, Hong Kong saw more deaths than births.
“The difference between the number of births and deaths will just get wider,” said Yip, chair professor in social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong and a former adviser to the government on population issues.
If a day arrives when Hong Kong does not have enough people, the impact will be felt all round, as Japan has found over the past decade.
“The ageing issue will get more serious as young people become fewer while the elderly have not yet passed away. This will affect people’s livelihoods, politics and all other areas,” he said.
That scenario would turn even worse if educated, skilled young Hongkongers decide to emigrate, he added. Some have already left over the past year, following Beijing’s imposition of the national security law last June.
Yip is not being too pessimistic.
Hong Kong’s total fertility rate (TFR) fell last year to a record low of 0.87, one of the lowest in the world, and well below the replacement rate of 2.1 – the level at which a population replenishes itself, assuming no migration.
The 43,100 births last year were overtaken by 49,800 deaths – the first such negative situation in more than half a century, a change sometimes dubbed the “population death cross” for its potential impact.
All this comes on top of an entrenched trend of Hongkongers marrying later, with more women having their first baby well into their 30s, when they are less fertile.
A survey of 1,200 adults by the Hong Kong Women Development Association in April found that more than two in five did not want to have children. Their main reasons were the financial burden and shortage of living space.
Leung*, 36, a nurse planning to get married this year to a 38-year-old writer at a television station, said the chances of her having a baby were slim.
Aside from her age, she said: “The overall environment in Hong Kong now is not good to live in, and there’s the financial pressure too.”
The current political atmosphere has affected Tony*, 32, an NGO researcher who married a 30-year-old communications officer last December. His wife is open to having a baby, but he is dead set against it.
He also wonders what kind of school experience his children will have, given changes to the education system.
All this, and his distrust of the government, made him decide against having a baby. “I won’t change my mind, even if they pay me,” he said.
Incentives don’t guarantee success
It may be small consolation, but scholars point out that Hong Kong is not alone in facing a shortage of babies. Across much of the developed world, including societies in Asia, couples are having babies later, or not at all.
Japan experienced the population death cross as far back as 2005. Taiwan and South Korea got there with Hong Kong last year. Singapore is anticipating more deaths than births by the mid-2030s.
Taiwan has invested heavily in expanding nurseries and subsidising childcare for children aged two to six, among other moves.
Yet the number of babies born on the self-ruled island fell last year to a record low of 165,249 and below the 173,156 deaths, for a TFR of 1.07 in 2020, one of the lowest in the world.
Lin Wan-i, a minister without portfolio overseeing social welfare policy in Taiwan’s Executive Yuan, said authorities planned to pour as much as NT$55.7 billion (HK$15.5 billion) into private day care subsidies and baby allowances this year, even though they realised raising the fertility rate would not be easy.
“If you do something, there will be a result, but if you do nothing, the babies definitely won’t come automatically,” he told the Post earlier this year.
The gap between births and deaths in South Korea was even worse, with only 275,815 babies born last year against 307,764 deaths. Its TFR fell to 0.84 last year, despite the government spending billions on childcare subsidies and supporting women on maternity leave.
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Unlike Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, Hong Kong has resisted introducing financial and other incentives to encourage people to have babies, saying this is a family decision and the government should not intervene.
This position was last stated in 2015 in a major population policy document by a steering committee comprising key officials and population experts and led by then chief secretary and current city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.
It said the government would instead “foster a supportive environment to form and raise families,” enhance child tax allowances and subsidies for kindergarten and encourage family-friendly practices in the workplace.
Any moves in that direction have not worked.
Currently in Hong Kong, parents are entitled to child tax allowances of up to HK$120,000 and most kindergartens are free or kept affordable with government subsidies.
Emeritus Economics Professor Liu Pak-wai of Chinese University (CUHK) said he did not expect efforts to encourage childbearing to reverse the sliding trend in births, but such measures were still needed.
Providing better child care services, for example, could encourage mothers to return to work and help ease the shortage of workers, he said.
Shen Jianfa, a CUHK professor at its department of geography and resource management, and who is also a former government adviser on population policy, said Hong Kong was unlikely to see significant results in producing more babies unless it went the way of Scandinavian countries which had achieved much higher TFRs through hefty investments in supporting families.
“You can’t just do nothing, or the birth rate will keep falling,” he said.
Paul Yip said Hong Kong’s population policy was piecemeal and despite all the signs, the city had not prepared for the day when it would have more deaths than births.
“They realise that there are problems but simply don’t know how to do anything about it,” he said. “Population policy has never been the government’s top priority, unlike in Singapore where the policy is a national agenda, a matter of survival.”
‘Promoting births an uphill battle’
Among Asian societies grappling with the shortage of births, Singapore swung into action as far back as 1987 and has some of the most comprehensive policies to encourage babies.
It came closest to achieving replacement-level TFR in 1988, a Year of the Dragon in the Chinese zodiac and considered auspicious by the country’s majority Chinese population. There were 52,957 Dragon babies, making for a TFR of 1.96.
The trend slid ever since, hitting a record low TFR of 1.1 last year with only 38,590 babies born.
“Promoting births is an uphill battle,” said Jean Yeung Wei-jun, founding director of the Centre for Family and Population Research at the National University of Singapore.
Currently, having a baby brings a one-off cash gift of S$8,000 to S$10,000 (HK$58,600), and the government will match every dollar the parents put into a child development savings account.
There are monthly subsidies of S$150 to S$600 for full-day preschool child care. Couples with children also enjoy priority for public housing.
Working mothers are entitled to 16 weeks’ paid maternity leave and fathers get two weeks of paternity leave. This is most generous compared with 14 weeks’ maternity leave and five days’ paternity leave in Hong Kong, eight weeks and five days respectively in Taiwan, and 90 days and 10 days respectively in South Korea.
Yeung said the European experience suggested providing long-term child care support might do more than a one-off baby bonus to encourage couples to have babies.
Singapore has lowered the cost of childcare and provided more day care options for children up to seven years old, and parents appreciated this.
But attitudes to parenting, and whether men are prepared to do more at home, including sharing in raising their children, also matter.
Angelique Chan Wei-ming, executive director of the Centre for Ageing Research and Education at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, pointed out that gender inequality was a factor in low fertility.
Traditional male-female roles prevalent in Asia mean most of the childcare burden still falls on mothers, and this can discourage working women from having babies.
Chan pointed to the Nordic countries of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland, often held up as models for having maintained TFRs higher than in other developed societies, although women there too are having babies later, and having fewer.
These countries have greater male-female equality, Chan said, with men sharing the load at home.
Some of these countries have the most generous baby-related benefits, with paid parental leave ranging from 40 weeks to over a year, which can be used by either parent or shared by mother and father.
Many men have no qualms about being stay-home fathers while their wives go to work, reflected in data which shows a steady growth in the share of parental leave used by fathers.
All that has influenced the willingness of career women to have babies.
“The load when you want to start a family, or have a second or third child, is not so heavy on one person,” Chan said.
Among Nordic countries, Iceland (1.8), Sweden (1.7) and Denmark (1.7) had some of the highest TFRs, according to World Bank data for 2019, with Norway (1.5) and Finland (1.4) trailing.
Singapore’s baby incentives do not go as far as those in the Nordic countries, and its women still bear most of the burden at home, although younger Singaporean men have taken to doing more as fathers.
Like Singapore, Hong Kong is a city where traditional roles of men and women prevail.
Just over a year since getting married, Hong Kong marketing manager Joelle*, 32, is unsure about having a baby and one of her concerns is the gender stereotyping in the city.
She and her husband lived together for years before marrying and in all that time, she did most of the household chores and he almost never helped.
“My husband is a traditional man, who believes women should stay at home to cook and look after the baby,” she said.
She said she might be more willing to have a baby if her husband offered to help at home, but their financial status was what mattered more in helping her decide.
“If my husband and I can make more money, there will be more security,” she said. “I agree with the saying, ‘poor people should not make babies’.”
An endless flow of immigrants?
If there is a silver lining for Hong Kong, it is that despite its declining birth rate, it can count on mainland China for a steady source of workers.
CUHK’s Liu said Hong Kong was fortunate to be able to rely on immigrants to sustain its long-term manpower needs.
Under the “one-way permit” scheme, up to 150 mainlanders are allowed to come to the city daily to reunite with family members. These are mostly the mainland Chinese wives and children of Hong Kong men.
Liu noted that the educational background and socio-economic status of these immigrants have improved compared to the past when they tended to be low-skilled housewives. Now they include younger, well-educated professionals as well.
There are other immigration schemes for talented mainlanders, as well as people from other countries.
The Admission Scheme for Mainland Talents and Professionals brought in an average of more than 13,400 from across the border each year from 2017 to 2019.
Through the General Employment Policy, about 41,000 people arrived each year from 2017 to 2019. Even during the pandemic last year, more than 14,000 came, with Britain, Japan and the US being the top three sources.
The Immigration Arrangements for Non-local Graduates drew more than 30,200 from 2017 to 2019, most of them mainlanders.
The Quality Migrant Admission Scheme, for highly skilled or talented individuals, attracted 1,840 people from 2017 to 2019, mostly from the mainland, for jobs mainly in the financial and accounting services, and information technology and telecommunications sectors.
But not all these jobseekers choose to stay permanently, with data showing only a small proportions eventually applying for right of abode.
Andy Kwan Cheuk-chiu, director of the ACE Centre for Business and Economic Research said if Hong Kong was a country it would be in big trouble over its shortage of babies.
As it was a city, he added, Chinese authorities appeared not too worried because they could simply let in more mainlanders.
CUHK’s Shen, who is from China’s Zhejiang province, said Hong Kong could rely on attracting immigrants for now, but this was not a long-term solution as the international competition for talent had become keen.
“When I came to Hong Kong in 1996, the salary levels were relatively high internationally and Hong Kong had an advantage in drawing talent,” he said. “But other countries have caught up over the years.”
Shen said Hong Kong used to be a society dominated by immigrants decades ago, but it was hard to say if a day would come when immigrants outnumbered the city’s natives again.
Spice trader Alfred Tjung, 34, married his Malaysian-Chinese wife, a 31-year-old credential analyst, three years ago and they have been living in the city with his Indonesian-born parents.
The couple moved out recently as they think it may be time to start a family.
“It seems all right to have children as we think we can afford it,” he said, adding that they expected to remain in Hong Kong for the long term.
Not worried that more immigrants might arrive, he said: “What’s more important is whether the immigrants respect the local culture.”
Pet groomer Shadow Lin, 30, and her 29-year-old boyfriend, who works in the public transport sector, are planning to marry next year. She said that from early in their relationship, she made clear that she did not want children.
“My family went through poverty so if I have kids, I should be able to give them the best environment or they may end up victimised. Society is also turbulent these days,” she said.
*Names have been changed or do not appear in full at the interviewees’ request