Published: 19:44, April 11, 2024 | Updated: 10:00, April 12, 2024
Revitalizing the future: Addressing low fertility rates and population decline in Hong Kong and the region
By Yiming Bai and Paul Yip

In the bustling metropolises of Hong Kong, the vibrant streets of Seoul, and the tranquil neighborhoods of Tokyo, a silent crisis is unfolding — a steadily declining birthrate that threatens the very fabric of these societies. Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan, three Asian powerhouses known for their economic prowess, are now grappling with the challenge of low fertility rates.

Japan stands at a precipice, teetering on the edge of losing a staggering 20 million people by 2070. This urgent demographic crisis serves as a clarion call for intervention, a last chance to reverse the tide and breathe new life into the nation. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has suggested that 2030 will be the breakpoint of the country’s population development with a sense of urgency and desperation. Hong Kong, too, finds itself in a precarious position, despite importing immigrants from far and wide. Retaining these newcomers and fostering a truly nurturing environment for its own citizens is the key to cultivating a robust and healthy population. While Japan may suffer from a dearth of babies, their marriage fertility rate remains high. Furthermore, the interval between marriage and the birth of a child is shorter than it is in Hong Kong. The Japanese concept of family formation differs significantly, and their government invests substantial effort in workplace-related policies and incentives to boost fertility. Taking a leaf from Japan’s book, Hong Kong must adopt a holistic approach to enhancing the fertility environment, encouraging families to have children, and empowering single women to pursue marriage. After all, the material fertility level remains high, and out-of-wedlock births are still uncommon.

In the past decade, the average level of public expenditures on family welfare in Northern and Western European countries has reached over 3 percent of the countries’ respective GDPs. Eastern and Central European countries have also reached a basic level of over 2 percent. However, the development of the support policy system for childbirth in East Asian societies started relatively late, resulting in a lower overall investment level. Japan and South Korea, for example, have an average level of only 1.3 percent and 1 percent respectively. This shows a certain gap compared with countries that took action earlier in implementing such policies to ensure a family friendly environment. We need to prioritize population development as a more significant strategic objective. Based on the experiences of various countries, effective measures for supporting fertility rates include providing childbirth subsidies, offering flexible parental leave, protecting the rights of women in the workplace, and establishing comprehensive childcare services, among others. However, raising fertility rates requires a long-term process of changing both attitudes and actions. This necessitates collective efforts from society as a whole, including the government, businesses, and individuals.

Currently, the incentives for childbirth are one-time occurrences, but the process of raising a child is long term and lifelong, as in Asian culture. Only by providing support in areas such as childcare and long-term education can we alleviate the burden on parents. Compared to Northern and Western European countries, East Asia places a higher emphasis on labor input, resulting in conflicts between work and childcare. Additionally, East Asian culture places a high value on investing in children’s education, and in situations where education costs are high, people choose to improve the quality of their children’s education by reducing the number of children they have, as family resources are limited, in terms of not only money but also the parents’ energy.

France is widely recognized as a country that has performed relatively well in supporting family fertility policies in Europe. In recent years, France’s fertility rate has not only stopped falling but has also rebounded to around 1.7. This is because of two factors: One is that its family support policies have been well-implemented, maintaining its original fertility level; and the other is that it accepts a substantial number of new immigrants, whose fertility rates are high. Taking into account the current trend of widespread immigration in Hong Kong, as well as the 58 percent increase in the marriage rate expected in Hong Kong in 2023, we believe that both new families formed by locally born-and-bred young adults and new immigrant families will further increase Hong Kong’s fertility rate.

To effectively address Hong Kong’s low fertility rate, the government must first gain a deeper understanding of reproductive-age women, their lives, and their aspirations. The considerations for having the first child differ greatly from those for having a second child. Young parents contemplating the first child may still be balancing their lives and family commitments, while parents considering a second child may be older and have to prioritize their own health and housing situation. Hence, policy measures should not adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, providing different incentive packages tailored to the needs of different stages and types of families would be more effective and better address their requirements. By acknowledging and catering to the unique circumstances of individuals, Hong Kong can pave the way for achieving a brighter future, where the pitter-patter of little feet reverberates through the city’s streets once more. The clock is ticking, and the time for action is now.

Yiming Bai is a doctoral student in social work and the Social Administration Department of the University of Hong Kong.

Paul Yip is a chair professor (population health) at the University of Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.