Ag­ing pop­u­la­tion prob­lem de­mands our ur­gent at­ten­tion

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - HK COMMENT - HONG LIANG The au­thor is a se­nior ed­i­tor with China Daily. jamesle­ung@chi­

Take your mind off pol­i­tics for a while. We’ve got a much big­ger is­sue to deal with right now: Hong Kong’s rapidly ag­ing pop­u­la­tion. The govern­ment has set up a task force to find a so­lu­tion and has also in­vited the pub­lic into the de­bate. Based on govern­ment data, the prob­lem seems real enough. Hong Kong is run­ning out of re­sources to take care of its swelling ranks of re­tirees.

So­cial ex­perts agree that at the heart of the is­sue is Hong Kong’s low birth rate, which, at 1.28 per woman, is well be­low the ac­cepted re­place­ment rate of 2.1. At its present level, Hong Kong’s av­er­age birth rate is lower than most de­vel­oped economies, in­clud­ing Ja­pan and Sin­ga­pore, ac­cord­ing to Pro­fes­sor Paul Yip of Univer­sity of Hong Kong, who also sits on the govern­ment’s steer­ing com­mit­tee on pop­u­la­tion pol­icy.

In an ar­ti­cle which ap­peared in the South China Morn­ing Post, Yip ar­gues for the cre­ation of a more fam­ily-friendly en­vi­ron­ment to en­cour­age pro­cre­ation. With­out of­fer­ing con­crete sug­ges­tions, he talks about the short­com­ings in the en­vi­ron­ment, ed­u­ca­tion and hous­ing that have brought many cou­ples around to the view that it’s sim­ply too dif­fi­cult to raise chil­dren in Hong Kong. As a re­sult, many have put off hav­ing any in­def­i­nitely.

Other than the top 1 per­cent of a rich mi­nor­ity, the rest of the pop­u­la­tion can cer­tainly re­late to the prob­lems touched on in Yip’s ar­ti­cle. Even mid­dle-class fam­i­lies are find­ing that the to­tal cost of rais­ing chil­dren in Hong Kong is in­creas­ingly be­com­ing pro­hib­i­tive.

The crux of the is­sue, as most peo­ple al­ready know, lies in the ex­or­bi­tant hous­ing prices in Hong Kong. As Yip notes, liv­ing space in Hong Kong is “well be­low any ac­cept­able stan­dard with half of our house­holds still hav­ing to make do with less than 500 square feet.”

If you have prob­lem un­der­stand­ing what this means, be pre­pared to be shocked. A 100 square feet room in She­ung Shui, the most far­away town­ship from the city cen­ter, costs more than HK$3,000 a month to rent. The rent of a barely de­cent 500 square feet apart­ment any­where on Hong Kong Is­land can eas­ily ex­ceed HK$15,000 a month, even for an un­fur­nished flat.

At this price, it is not a sur­prise that the av­er­age fam­ily in Hong Kong is spend­ing at least half of its to­tal in­come on putting a roof over its head. The added cost of rais­ing chil­dren would seem most daunt­ing un­der such cir­cum­stances.

To be sure, a free nine-year ed­u­ca­tion and af­ford­able med­i­cal ser­vice have helped greatly ease the pres­sure of child rear­ing. But many Hong Kong par­ents want a great deal more for their chil­dren, in­clud­ing pri­vate-school ed­u­ca­tion, which is pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive.

The govern­ment is step­ping up its ef­forts to at­tract young tal­ented peo­ple, es­pe­cially those from the main­land. It is en­cour­ag­ing them to stay af­ter fin­ish­ing their stud­ies in Hong Kong by propos­ing to ex­tend the time for them find jobs af­ter grad­u­a­tion from one year to two. But the prob­lem is that there is lit­tle Hong Kong can of­fer to en­tice them to set­tle down to make Hong Kong their home.

Many main­land peo­ple I know have told me that there is a lot to like about Hong Kong. But the high cost of hous­ing has made them re­luc­tant to make a long-term com­mit­ment here. Many of them have re­turned to the main­land af­ter gain­ing the nec­es­sary work­ing ex­pe­ri­ence while some oth­ers moved on to greener pas­tures else­where.

We can’t blame them. The high cost of hous­ing has be­come a bane that has de­mor­al­ized many Hong Kong peo­ple and forced oth­ers to se­ri­ously con­sider em­i­gra­tion as the only way out. The Hong Kong govern­ment has pro­posed to greatly in­crease the sup­ply in com­ing year to ease the pres­sure.

Such an ad­just­ment, even if un­fet­tered by de­vel­op­ers and other in­ter­ested par­ties, would take a long time to work through the mar­ket. As long as hous­ing prices re­main at lev­els that few Hong Kong peo­ple can af­ford, there is no point dis­cussing a pop­u­la­tion pol­icy. Noth­ing else will work.

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