In the early 1990s, I remember Chinese journalist friends telling me about the huge numbers of Hong Kong men who had taken mistresses and second wives across the boundary in the Pearl River Delta, confident that the barriers to migration into Hong Kong would forever keep their second families invisible.
I never believed the numbers of wives and mistresses colleagues described – literally hundreds of thousands.
After all, global polls on sexuality around the world described Hong Kong couples as the least busy lovers in the world.
But I was mistaken. And two decades later, the fruits of these cross-boundary trysts have literally reshaped Hong Kong society.
They have shown for perhaps the fourth time in my lifetime that Hong Kong’s population planners, who build population projections painstakingly on the basis of steadily falling birth rates, are profoundly wrong and wasting their time.
In short, Hong Kong’s population never has been – and probably will not in my lifetime be – determined by birth rates.
It has been driven by one force, and one force alone: migration.
The scale of the “family reunion” migration – embodied in the policy, introduced in 1995, allowing 150 one-way permits to be issued daily – is huger than most people imagine.
The numbers are remarkable. Since 1995, a total of 1.32 million people – most of them young women married to significantly older Hong Kong men – have come into Hong Kong under the one-way permit scheme.
That is 18 percent of Hong Kong’s 7.2 million population.
Since arrival, many have raised young families, making their share of our population even greater.
Demographically, this immigrant community matches a very specific stereotype: women now in their 30s and 40s who arrived in Hong Kong after marrying a man a decade or two older than them.
They arrived with rather few skills as Hong Kong’s low-skill job opportunities began to ebb, and they were ill-equipped for the challenging professional jobs that were emerging in large numbers in Hong Kong’s increasingly specialized headquarters services economy.
They have tended to concentrate in the poorer new towns in Hong Kong and have concentrated on raising young families.
All those kids growing up in Hong Kong have grandparents back in the Pearl River Delta and have visited them often, ever since they were young.
I know these are stereotypes, and there are many exceptions, but I believe the stereotypes have some validity and they have brought us to a tipping point: many of the older husbands are either dead or coming into their final years.
The youngsters born of these marriages are coming to the end of their school lives.
The ties that have bound these women to Hong Kong are being loosened rapidly.
If husbands have died already and owned the tiny apartment the family shared in one of Hong Kong’s new towns, then these widows already have a clear and interesting choice.
They can stay in Hong Kong alone in tiny apartments without good job opportunities or they can invest funds raised by selling the apartment to buy something more comfortable and spacious back home, close to parents and grandparents in the Pearl River Delta.
My guess – and at this point it is only a guess – is that many tens of thousands of those women who have arrived in Hong Kong since 1995 through the one-way permit process will in the coming decade be strongly tempted to return to the PRD as the ties to Hong Kong loosen.
The death of the husband will be key. So too will the emergence of their children from the Hong Kong school system.
The Hong Kong hospital system may still attract them to stay.
So too might our rule of law and comparative absence of corruption.
But the desire to be close to aging parents will be increasingly important.
And as communities in the PRD become more prosperous, so Hong Kong’s comparative attractiveness will weaken.
If I am right, and we have reached a migratory tipping point, then a number of positive changes may occur.
First, links between Hong Kong and the PRD will strengthen as families buy homes in the PRD while retaining the right to be in Hong Kong.
Second, many who find it tough to get good jobs in Hong Kong will have a chance to find better careers.
Pressure on Hong Kong’s welfare system will be reduced, as will housing pressures.
But will Hong Kong’s population shrink?
At this point, I think not.
Even if these one-way permit holders opt to go back to the PRD, the inflow to Hong Kong of increasingly well-educated mainland Chinese will continue to grow, strengthening the professional ranks of Hong Kong’s highly specialized city services economy.
Migration in both directions will continue to be the main influence on Hong Kong’s future population.
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