11th June 2024 – (Hong Kong) Hong Kong is grappling with the challenges of an ageing population and a declining birth rate, a global trend that the United Nations has warned is a defining issue of our era. The city’s population is rapidly greying, with those aged 65 or above accounting for 21% (around 1.57 million) in 2023, and projections indicating that Hong Kong could become the world’s most aged society by 2050. Concerningly, the fertility rate stands at a mere 0.8 children per woman, reflecting young couples’ reluctance to have children.

Against this backdrop, a Legislative Councillor has criticised the government for its lack of foresight and comprehensive planning, despite its access to fiscal and human resources. The lawmaker’s censure stems from the impending closure of the Loving Heart Lutheran Kindergarten in Tai Wai, which has operated for over 40 years but is now forced to cease operations in August due to financial difficulties, impacting 10 staff members and at least 18 students. Faced with a structural decline in the number of school-aged children, the question arises whether the government can only passively respond, allowing the “wave of school closures” to continue unchecked.

The Legislative Councillor further highlighted that the number of kindergarten students in Hong Kong had already fallen below 50,000 in the 2022 academic year. Based on birth rates, this figure could potentially plummet to around 35,000 in the 2024-25 academic year. In 2022, while kindergarten places exceeded 60,000, student enrolment stood at a mere 46,000, reflecting an oversupply of places. From 2020 to 2023, a cumulative total of 60 kindergartens were forced to close.

In response to the declining birth rate, the government’s primary policy measure has been to provide a one-off HK$20,000 cash handout to families with newborns as an incentive for childbirth. However, this measure has been widely criticised as inadequate, given the soaring cost of living in Hong Kong. Critics argue that raising a child in Hong Kong could cost as much as HK$6 million, a figure that may be exaggerated but nonetheless highlights the significant financial burden faced by families.

An organisation’s survey revealed that respondents rated the HK$20,000 handout as the least satisfactory policy among those aimed at encouraging births. The analysis pointed to the economic challenges in the wake of the pandemic, Hong Kong’s exorbitant property prices, and its ranking among the world’s most expensive cities for daily expenditures. These factors, coupled with the dual pressures of economic and caregiving responsibilities, have made it understandable for many young families or women to forgo having children.

Numerous factors influence the decision to have children, including the difficulties faced by dual-income households in providing childcare. The legislator cited Finland’s example, where the country employs a one-stop system to provide free early childhood education and care services, known as “educare,” for all children from the age of one. This model emphasises comprehensive child development and growth. Additionally, Finland strives to accommodate diverse family needs by offering flexible scheduling options, such as half-day and full-day programs, enabling parents to choose the most suitable arrangement.

Drawing inspiration from Finland’s early childhood education system, the Legislative Councillor suggested that Hong Kong could begin by addressing childcare services. To meet the needs of dual-income families, the government should provide more flexible service hours, including comprehensive services that incorporate nap times and after-school care. However, Hong Kong’s Social Welfare Department has demonstrated its inability to adequately manage even community child-minders. In early January, a couple who both had to work encountered a situation where their domestic helper was on leave. The mother applied for the “Neighbourhood Support Child Care Project” provided by the Yang Oi Tong, seeking assistance from a community child-minder. Tragically, there were suspicions of child abuse, with claims that the infant girl suffered convulsions after being bathed, leading to a critical condition upon hospitalisation.

Given Hong Kong’s failure to properly manage even a community child-minder support program, it is doubtful whether the city can be compared to Finland’s well-established early childhood education system. The HK$20,000 incentive for childbirth has proven ineffective, and the government must develop more effective long-term policies. Otherwise, Hong Kong’s future will be filled with elderly residents, making it challenging even to find a child to sing the classic “Mama is the Best in the World” – a prospect that deeply saddens all.