Speech on Population Policy

Hong Kong’s community has been troubled by many problems since unification including poverty and unemployment. Many consider recession and structural imbalance of the economy as root causes. However, social conflicts are intensified by a more serious underlying cause of lacking long term population policy. As the Government has not done its homework in demographic trends, there is hardly any long term policy. When new demands arise from demographic changes, social conflicts could not be mitigated timely and would intensify instead. I have repeatedly asked both the past and present Administrations to formalize population policy. We must assess the population capacity of Hong Kong, manage sources of population growth, and prepare long term plans to address issues of education, medicine, housing and employment. Unfortunately, the Government has been short-sighted since reunification and does not have sufficient political capacity and muscle to deal with such a complex problem.

I have discussed the importance of population policy on many occasions. Today, I would focus on demographic issues that deserve early attention. When one talks about population policy, one’s attention would naturally turn to the issue of single-trip permit. Altogether, over 760,000 persons have arrived from the Mainland on single-trip permit to date but most of them are low in educational attainment and about one-half are housewives. Therefore, these new arrivals would join the grass root sector. As they come mainly for family reunion, we could not take away their entitlements. What we could do in such circumstances are to offer them relevant supports in livelihood, to help them settle down and integrate, and to help them upgrade themselves.

Another source of population growth is natural birth. It is also important in population policy. New births have been rising in recent years, from 48,000 in 2001 to over 90,000 last year. Total new births in these 12 years amounted to 820,000, of which about 200,000 were children of non-resident parents.

Actually, natural birth is our most logical source of population growth. In the wake of an aging population, it is imminent for Hong Kong to promote fertility and replenish the labour force. Of course, mere promotion is not good enough and the Government should provide more incentives. The simplest way is to increase children allowance in taxation. Cash subsidies for the newly born might even be considered. As it is very stressing to raise children, the Government should support working mothers with sufficient day-time nurseries. Alternatively, companies should be encouraged to offer more part-time jobs, facilitate work-at-home and allow flexible working hours, and help mothers undertake both employment and parenthood. The Government might even offer subsidies or further tax concessions to encourage mothers to stay at home and take care of their children.

Admittedly, it is always controversial to promote fertility with public money but there is no better way to sustain the rising birth rate. According to official projection, elders aged 65 and above would increase from the present share of 10 percent plus to 30 percent after 30 years (in 2041) as we enter peak years of aged population. What follow are peak years of death of aged population. If we did not plan ahead for society beyond 30 years and bring up dynamic people as replenishment, our competiveness would only fall dramatically.

On the other hand, those 200,000 children born of non-resident parents are time bombs of society. Understandably, most of them are still staying on the Mainland. I have proposed to track them down and understand their resettlement plans. Thus, we would be prepared. Imagine what would happen if these 200,000 children choose to resettle when reaching adolescence and enter secondary schools and universities. The community would be disrupted and they might probably find it hard to integrate too. Thus, the Government should find a pragmatic response. Actually, it should consider more proactive strategies of offering policy support or financial incentives to motivate affordable families (ie those not requiring social security) to resettle to Hong Kong early. Their children would then receive education in Hong Kong and integrate early. Moreover, these families have financial capacity. If they did resettle early, they would bring in economic benefits as well.

Let me close with a remark on ageing population. As explained earlier, elderly people are rising in number and many of them come from middle class or above. They are retired but living expenses are not their concern. If they were not fully occupied, they might become lethargic over time. In my view, retirees are our social treasures. They are knowledgeable and experienced. In early years of retirement, they are still agile to serve the community. I wish the Government would encourage them to join the rank of volunteers, and persuade and arrange them to teach grass root children language, music, financial management and computer skills etc. Alternatively, they may conduct tutorials. It would be wastage if their knowledge and experience were not deployed for the mutual benefit of these underprivileged children.

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