Hong Kong needs a more cogent population policy

June 07, 2021 09:40
Photo: RTHK

Hong Kong – a city with one of the highest life expectancies in the world. A city packed to brim with wealth, affluence, and decadence. Also – a city with a rapidly ageing population – and whose demographic crisis has no end in sight. There’s an imminent and real problem, and it behooves us to tackle it.

Tracing Hong Kong’s ageing population should be a relatively straightforward task. The city is well-equipped with unrivalled infrastructure and health services – with world-class doctors, medical practitioners, and a copious level of capital invested into the quality of life of its citizens. The inequality certainly is regrettable and abhorrent, but a vast majority of Hongkongers lead largely placid, unperturbed lives that stretch easily into the mid- to late 80s.

On the other hand, we’ve seen a continued decline in birth rates and fertility rates. From the record sub-one lows in the early 2000s (0.92 in 2004) to the latest figure of 1.05 babies per woman, Hong Kong’s fertility rates have remained – throughout the past two decades – well below the natural replacement rate of 2.1. This is in stark juxtaposition to the mainland, whose dwindling births have ruffled plenty a feather in Beijing – and triggered the drastic pivot to three-child policy last week.

We should be worried. An ageing population imposes substantially greater burdens on the city’s infrastructure, welfare services, and active workforce. It also – in the long run, if unaddressed and unaccompanied by genuine transformations – paves the dangerous way for a skyrocketing dependency ratio, thereby crippling our productivity and jeopardising the foundations underpinning our advanced economy.

More fundamentally, perhaps, a graying population may end up leading longer, more extended lives – yet beyond a certain point, the enhancement to one’s quality of life is bound to stagnate, such that with each additional year, sans the apropos technological adaptations and innovation, we’d see substantially decreasing marginal utilities. In other words, the number of years cannot and does not matter, unless we could – as we should – ensure that each and every elderly citizen lives under at least comfortably humane conditions, regardless of their socioeconomic standing. This could well be a tall order – but is also an order of moral necessity.

To replenish our capital stock, to rejuvenate our city, to lure in investors and firms attracted by a healthy and robust consumer market… Hong Kong needs a more concrete and visionary population policy.

For starters, it’s high time the city considered how it could attract quality migrants – whether as medium-term to short-term workers, or, even better, as long-term citizens. For far too long we’ve rested on our laurels, as a highly cosmopolitan, international, and economically vibrant city. Yet as our competitors – including other cities in China, e.g. Shanghai and Shenzhen, as well as regional hubs such as Singapore and Seoul, play catch-up, Hong Kong can ill-afford to wait it out. We must offer structural incentives – ranging from subsidies, rent waivers, tax rebates, to economic opportunities and more access to capital – to appeal to aspirants and immigrants, including those who are intrigued by China’s inexorable rise, yet plausibly put off by the mainland’s stringent legal and cultural restrictions. We need young, talented migrants to help ameliorate (or avert) our economic downturn – we also need them to transform and enliven our population at large, to “de-gray” our demographics, whilst ensuring that our city remains sustainable and self-sufficient. As for the worry that this would induce an excessive expansion and growth in our population (surely Hong Kong is crowded as is!), overcrowding is indeed an issue in our urban centers, but let’s not kid ourselves: there is much room in the New Territories that can and should be developed into new urban centers and areas to accommodate the rising population. In any case, the housing crisis does not stem from Hong Kong’s population – it stems from governmental and private market failure; discussions of this nature are best left for another day.

Furthermore, the government must grapple with the root causes underpinning the phenomenon of declining birth rates. Fewer and fewer families are willing to have children, given the exorbitant living costs, political uncertainty, and socioeconomic inequalities that threaten to thwart the life chances of many a yet-to-be-born Hong Konger. Families who are adamant on having children of their own are increasingly drawn to migrating abroad – even if it is to countries or regions that are dispositionally hostile towards foreigners. Hong Kong is ceasing to be a home for many, for reasons largely with nothing to do with politics: instead, it’s rapidly losing its glow and appeal as a livable city, and it behooves our government to plug this gap, to the extent that they are willing to do so.

Finally, there’s the question of incentives. Why should young women with aspirations and careers start families of their own? More specifically, why do so in Hong Kong, where the cutthroat work environment and implicitly discriminatory corporate culture render motherhood effectively an antithesis to a successful, flourishing career? The status quo lacks adequate protections for female workers who choose to bear and care for children – yet motherhood should not be a privilege; it should be a core political right that individuals are entitled to, just as the right to religion, the right to free speech, and the right to reproductive freedom. If we are genuinely a city that is cosmopolitan, that runs on the basis of the rule of law, then it is imperative for us to lend a helping hand to women who are unjustly and structurally shut out by employers and firms hostile to the idea of them nurturing children.

Only by tackling the root causes of our population challenge, could our administration rebuild a Hong Kong that is for all – including the elderly, the downtrodden, and the women who lack a say over their reproductive decisions today.

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Assistant Professor, HKU