The Asian Voice

Hong Kong needs more babies: China Daily columnist

In his commentary, the author says the Hong Kong government can do more to raise the country's fertility rate.

In 2015, World Bank data showed Hong Kong's total fertility rate was 1.19, the world's lowest. PHOTO: ST FILE

HONG KONG (CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Nobody is going to argue the fact that Hong Kong is ageing, and at a fast pace.

The issue has plagued the city for years. The government knows it, the public talk about it, but the numerous efforts to halt the speed of ageing seem to cause few ripples in the stagnant water.

There is a two-sided perspective on this issue.

One is efforts to provide better preventive care and medical services to those growing old, in other words, keeping the elderly healthy.

The other side of the issue is to increase the fertility rate.

There are two types of fertility rates - period fertility rate and cohort fertility rate.

Period measures the fertility rate at a specific time period; cohort measures the fertility rate of one generation of people.

The total fertility rate used in international standards is cohort; Hong Kong has been flying low on this for decades.

In 2015, World Bank data showed Hong Kong's total fertility rate was 1.19, the world's lowest. That means a woman in Hong Kong only gave birth to one child in her lifetime.

The tipping point for replacement in the population is 2.1 children per woman.

An Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report in 2011 noted that there is a positive correlation of fertility rate and quality and sufficient day-care services for children.

But Hong Kong's full-time day-care percentage for children under three years old is only 13 per cent, much lower than the OECD average 35.2 per cent, not to mention the highest day-care service rate of 81.7 per cent in Denmark.

More importantly, just two per cent of more than 100,000 children aged below two could enjoy full-time day-care services, with only 1,047 places available.

In other words, it is much harder to access a day-care center than to enter university.

France has moved ahead of many other economies in terms of fertility, improving steadily since hitting a low-point of 1.73 in 1993.

In 2015, its fertility rate reached 2.01, an outstanding one among developed economies.

Apart from its achievements in gender equality, France also has a raft of pro-family policies in society and the workplace.

Full-time day-care services are much cheaper than in Hong Kong, where these cost about HK$6,000 (S$1014) a month - more than a third of the median income of Hong Kong's working class families.

Hong Kong is considering raising maternity leave from 10 weeks to 14 weeks.

It's not easy to be a working mother in the city, with little support in the community and ever-increasing living expenses.

An incentive to boost the fertility rate would, without doubt, be to cover the starting line of the race - day-care services and maternity support at least.

However, the special administrative region government's efforts seem to yield little progress when Hong Kong's fertility rate remains the world's worst.

In the government's reply to a Legislative Council query in March last year, it said: "Childbearing after all is a major family decision", and "excessive government intervention may not be appropriate".

Many would disagree that we have used every means we can to motivate women to carry babies.

Nor would most members of the public call government efforts to create a more gender-equal and pro-family community "intervention".

Dealing with an ageing society takes a holistic and comprehensive plan to improve both ends in the population equation - the babies and elderly.

In that way, those in the middle - the main part of the labour force - can perform their duties of cultivating the young and caring for the old, for society's sake.

The author is an editor of China Daily Hong Kong Edition. China Daily is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media.

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