Politics in Hong Kong is an incessant hailstorm of panics and outrages. Froth at the mouth about this! Wet yourself about that! And the barrage strikes from shifting directions. Wet yourself about this again, froth at the mouth about that some more, but for different reasons!
Members of the normally sensible-but-dull Democratic Party join their more excitable counterparts in People Power and the Civic Party in banging the table and demanding trade and other economic sanctions on the Philippines. It’s about justice for the families! It’s about giving CY Leung’s administration a good kicking! It’s about… avoiding criticism for not jumping on the bandwagon! (The more commerce-minded Liberal Party suggests that we all email the Manila authorities.)
Meanwhile, an old threat is being repackaged for a new cause.
For years, we have been invited to freak out about something called the aging population. Few dared question the existence of this looming danger. It was obvious that people living longer because they are healthier must be a Bad Thing. The then-Chief Executive Donald Tsang and his zombie-brained bureaucrat buddies tried to spread endless alarm about the phenomenon, insisting that we expand savings, start up new health insurance systems and introduce a sales tax in order preserve the government’s bloated reserves and everyone’s inalienable right to sit around doing nothing from their 60th birthdays.
Now, all of a sudden, it’s back. But it’s new and improved. It’s not really about people taking dangerously long times to die; it’s about people dangerously not breeding enough. That suggests a shift in the agenda. Under Sir Bow-Tie the intention was to ensure that the government could go on mindlessly accumulating its own private, not-for-the-public store of wealth. It was a colonial mindset, rooted in the principle that Hong Kong’s people are uninvited guests, just passing through, and nothing to do with the authorities’ core constituency of merchants. Now the reasoning has shifted. It’s not about needing more money; it’s about needing more people. More young people. Young. Fresh. New! New people. New Hongkongers who are diligent and can enrich the workforce.
The South China Morning Post reports proposals to give cash bonuses to women who have babies. Ideas, curiously, abound: monthly subsidies to families with kids; incentives for employers to offer childcare; better access to fertility treatment; and – scraping the bottom of the inanity barrel – time off work for parents to visit schools to review their kids’ report cards.
This comes after rising hostility to the surges of Mainlanders seeking milk powder and Mainlanders sending their Hong Kong-born children to local clinics and schools, at a time when space in the streets, on transport and for housing seems to be running out. It came to something of a head with provocative, not to say disingenuous, newspaper ads linking CY, Mainland migration and the housing shortage, and a prickly response from Hong Kong and Beijing officials. Chief Secretary Carrie Lam rejected the suggestion that the arrival of 700,000 Mainlanders since 1997 has had any impact on housing availability. You know what she meant, but it’s not as if they each brought their own apartment in with them. Without them, we are warned, more schools would have to close – as if most of us lie awake at night worrying about keeping schools open.
Admittedly, Donald Tsang occasionally pleaded for a higher birth-rate. But he didn’t offer money, because in his mindset the main problem was a dire shortage of money caused by grasping people living longer. But that was the old agenda. This is a new, post-colonial one. Post-uninvited guests.
We have plenty of cash now, but not enough kids. So this is the deal: have more babies and we give you money. Experience overseas suggests that such campaigns don’t work. (For many Hongkongers, it can’t work: they don’t have anywhere to put an extra bed, and they don’t want to go through the kindergarten-interview elite-schools-applications education nightmare more than once in a lifetime.) But there it is. Cash on the table, all yours for the asking. Alternatively, have more Mainlanders. Unlike the people of Tibet and Xinjiang, you have a choice.