Where some see overpopulation, a plan to attract more people

HONG KONG -- As the population ages, the city proposes incentives to increase births and immigration, causing residents to balk.
Written by Vanessa Ko, Contributor

HONG KONG -- As is the case in many places around the world, the Hong Kong government has sounded alarm bells about the city’s serious problem of a rapidly aging population, urgently calling for a strategic population policy to face the crisis. The proposed solutions would attempt to increase the birth rate and promote immigration using financial and other incentives.

But the idea of having more people come here, while perhaps rationally sound, is not always greeted with enthusiasm.

In the tightly packed city, a squeeze on resources in recent years -- ranging from housing to school places --and a frustratingly crowded living environment have led to a growing sense of embitterment over an influx of tourists and immigrants, namely those from mainland China, whose citizens have increasingly been permitted to enter the semiautonomous region of Hong Kong over the past decade.

And when it comes to attracting talent, many of the resulting immigrants are expected to be from mainland China simply based on proximity and the sheer size of that population. But giving extra incentives for them to come here “will be a very tricky issue under the current political climate,” concedes Raymond So, dean of the School of Business at Hang Seng Management College.

“It’s understandable that there are some local voices which are not that friendly to Chinese immigrants, or Chinese talents, or China as a whole. But this is the reality. We need to face it,” he said.

Professor So stresses that when the city talks about not having enough people, it is not referring to the overall population but young people who can produce and contribute to the economy. But critics of the Hong Kong government say the seemingly paramount focus on sustaining the economy is -- and traditionally has been -- taking priority over any improvements to the way people live.

“Hong Kong society has been screaming for some sort of population control, which indeed, judging from all kinds of prevalent social problems ranging from (lack of) housing to (poor) quality of education, inadequate medical care, and fast-declining quality of life, seems well justified,” wrote Alice Poon, an expert on the city’s land policies, on the news site Asia Sentinel.

In a statement late last month, the government expressly said a population cap would be “undesirable” and pushed for a population increase. The committee charged with tackling the population issue spelled out a dire situation. The city’s high life expectancy –- currently third highest in the world, behind Japan and Switzerland, according to U.N. statistics –- combined with a low birth rate will mean that by 2041, of every 1,000 people living here, 712 will be elderly.

“A population cap would only compound, not resolve, the population challenges we are facing,” the statement read.

One aspect of this push for a population increase, as detailed in the committee’s statement, is to embrace mainland immigrants who are settling here based on laws regarding family ties and birthright residency. But for residents, this attitude may be hard to muster.

“People here feel that what’s theirs is being grabbed; to suggest that we need more immigrants is going to elicit a strong emotional response,” said Ling Ka-wai, a Hong Kong resident.

“But I think we do need to attract talent in certain sectors,” he said. “And it's always good to have diversity of people and views, instead of being too protectionist about our city. It is a matter of what kind of system the government sets to attract the right kind of people.”

Photo: Flickr/David Dennis

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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