China’s one-child policy is changing Hong Kong’s future at a speed that is out of control. Recent changes have looked to halt the run-away train, but is there enough being done to prepare for the future?
Recently I was out speaking with a group of women in Hong Kong, one of whom was heavily pregnant. The conversation turned to the best place to give birth in this well developed city. “Any place that I can get a bed,” replied the soon-to-be mum. What? I thought, expecting that like in other countries, booking a bed in a hospital would be a routine affair. Apparently not.
“I’ve been trying to book a bed since I knew I was coming to Hong Kong 5 months ago,” said the mum. So what’s the trouble? I wanted to know.”They’re all booked. Chinese mainland mums have taken over the availability and now it’s really hard to get a bed,” she said in a matter of fact tone. I searched the faces of the other women in the room to gauge their reactions. None registered any surprise. So I decided to find out more.
Why would mainland Chinese mothers would want to cross the border to give birth? My guess: that Hong Kong has better facilities, and that the treatment standards are higher, hasn’t been corroborated. A study by The Lancet conducted from 1996 to 2008 showed that China has been encouraging women to give birth in hospitals instead of at home, which has resulted in infant mortality dropping by 62% in the study period, which shows that the facilities are keeping the babies healthy and should provide some confidence to mothers in the country.
However, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) administration has more than one reason to encourage mothers to attend hospital to give birth – the one child policy is still alive and well in most regions. The Economist recently reported that the Guangdong region – China’s most populous- has applied to relax the family planning rules. Guangdong shares a border with Hong Kong, so it seems more than a coincidence that the provincial official’s plea to relax the rules comes at the same time there is rapid increase in the amount of women giving birth in what is essentially another country.
The web is crawling with accounts of the heavy price a mother must pay if she is caught pregnant with a second child under the one child policy. In 2007, Annie Hung Tsz Bun reported an account of a Guangdong Province woman that chose to give birth in Hong Kong. One of the reasons she gave for choosing Hong Kong was that she knew of a 7-months pregnant mother of one being caught by the authority, retained in custody and given two options. Either receive an abortion or be fined 180000 RMB.
“Now as long as you pay HK$39000, you can give birth here legally. It is better than giving birth in the Mainland,” the mother said.
So outmaneuvering the People’s Republic is one reason for border hopping births. The more attractive reason is the right of abode given to any child born in Hong Kong.That means free education, health care, social welfare and the ability to fly to over 130 countries without a visa. With such an attractive proposition on offer, it’s easy to understand why in 2010, about 41,000 women (half the total HK births) decided to invest in the future of their child by giving birth across the border.
Typically mainland mothers need to plan carefully to give birth in Hong Kong, as they must attend at least 3 check ups in the city during their pregnancy. With this cost, and the actual cost of the birth (around 39,000 HKD for a public hospital) many mainland mothers check themselves out after only 2 or 3 days. This has raised concerns about follow on check ups for both the mother and the newborn infant, particularly for those that decide at the last minute to check in to an accident and emergency instead of planning ahead.
For this reason as well as the ever increasing strain on the healthcare system, not to mention the lack of planning in the education and welfare sectors, in April the Health Authority put a halt on any new birth arrangements from mainland mothers for the rest of 2011. Unfortunately for mainland women married to local Hong Kong residents, this broad brush approach included them, much to the outrage of community action groups.
Was this action timed precisely to avert the potential 2012 ‘dragon baby’ boom that I covered in a previous post? Or is it simply a measure to allow the system to play catch up, on what appears to be a run-away train of knock-on effects, that have not been well considered since they first began allowing right of abode to children born in this city?
One can only assume that as the children mature, and take advantage of this opportunity, the challenge for parents will be extreme. I’ve contacted multiple charity organizations to inquire if they provide any support services to these families – who ostensibly don’t speak the local language, and are not well informed about the kind of public or infrastructure support available to aid them. To date, I have not been able to find any evidence of a functioning support service for what locally is referred to as ’90 day mothers’ – i.e. Mothers with a 90 day visa for Hong Kong, but who have children with a right to abode.
Unless the government works diligently to provide enough resources within education, healthcare and also for support services, and unless charity organizations prepare to take up the slack where there is danger of people falling through the cracks – there may be considerable social, health and welfare implications for the children in the future.
I’ll be watching this space.