For a city with an aging population, a baby boom should be good news. But the one under way in Hong Kong is the result of women travelling across the border from mainland China to give birth in the city, and it is provoking an angry backlash.
The number of babies born in the city to mainland Chinese women who were not married to Hong Kong husbands rose to 32,653 last year — more than a third of all the city’s births — and up from 620 a decade ago.
Most mainland mothers-to-be are drawn by the prospect of permanent residency for their children, an automatic right for those born in Hong Kong, which retains a much more liberal political, legal and economic system than the mainland. There is also the added benefit of avoiding a financial penalty for breaking Beijing’s one-child policy.
The Hong Kong government has come under pressure from doctors at government hospitals and from Hong Kong citizens to curb the practice.
A Facebook group calling itself “strongly against mainland mothers delivering children in Hong Kong” refers to such expectant women as “grasshoppers”.
The issue has come to the fore as first-time home buyers in the city complain about being priced out of the property market because an influx of wealthy mainland Chinese has driven prices to records. On Monday the Hong Kong government’s education bureau told the South China Morning Post that the number of mainland-born children studying in Hong Kong’s school system had increased to 9,899 last year, more than double the figure five years ago.
The increase in the number of births continues to prompt anxiety, especially in Hong Kong’s public hospitals.
“The Hong Kong medical system is beyond overheated. It will become unsafe. We say we must cap the number of deliveries,” warns Cheung Tak Hong, who heads the obstetrics and gynecology department at the Prince of Wales public hospital in Shatin, not far from Hong Kong’s border with China.
In response to the pressure, York Chow, Hong Kong’s health secretary, last month announced the government would centralize the registration of bookings by all prospective mothers who were not residents of the city and tighten checks to ensure the pregnancies were uncomplicated.
Many observers see this as the first step towards an eventual cap on the number of spaces available in private hospitals to mainland mothers-to-be.
Private hospitals have been criticized for using agents to solicit more business from across the border.
At the privately owned Baptist Hospital a sign reads: “Strictly prohibit agent to promote business.” Underneath it, Ma Sheung Fong, an agent who arranges for mainland mothers to give birth in Hong Kong hospitals, is boasting about how good business is.
Ma is from Hunan and the agency she runs — Hong Kong Good Baby — typically charges US$2,200 to reserve a bed, pay for a week’s medical checks and process the documentation needed for permanent residency. In 2007 Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority instituted a maternity package fee of HK$39,000 (US$5,000) for mainland women wanting to give birth in Hong Kong, but that has not reduced the number of women seeking residency for their children in the city.
Ahead of the government’s announcement last month, a number of public hospitals said they would no longer take bookings from pregnant mainland women for the foreseeable future.
Dr Cheung at Prince of Wales hospital — though alarmed by the coachloads of mothers being ferried across the border into Hong Kong by agents — says he understands the rationale. “It’s parents trying to give their children a better chance,” he says.
Additional reporting by Lydia Guo in Hong Kong