China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2011/Jun

The challenge of newcomers: babies and immigrants

On 7 August 1963, the first lady of the United States of America, Jacqueline Kennedy, gave birth prematurely. Residents of the White House receive the best medical care in the world. Even so, that boy died two days later. Everyone expressed condolences. Trying to be helpful, many of them said, “This was God’s holy will.”

Was that the end of the story? No. A doctor studied the problem and discovered that the lungs of premature babies are not yet fully formed. Administering oxygen is not enough. However, a certain drug which prevents the build up of fluid in the lungs, can give the baby a good chance of survival.

Welcoming large numbers of people

In 1965, Vatican II was optimistic about progress in the world, while cautioning that people cannot create heaven on earth, “…our hope in a new earth should not weaken, but rather stimulate, our concern for developing this earth.” While “earthly progress is to be carefully distinguished from the growth of Christ’s kingdom,” both are praiseworthy (Gaudium et Spes, n. 39).

Today, patients at public hospitals in Hong Kong wait in long queues, yet they receive medicine and surgical procedures which were not available even to the rich and powerful half a century ago. This is praiseworthy.

Although neonatal care was primitive back then, and Hong Kong was a poor city, the hospitals delivered more than 100,000 babies annually. Births from 1959 to 1963 ranged from 115,263 to 104,579, with a downward trend. The number fell to only 46,965 births in 2003.

Probably underused maternity wards were converted to bedspace for older patients and perhaps medical schools concluded a generation ago that the birthrate would either stay low or fall even lower, never to rise again, so they trained only a few obstetrician-gynecologists.

Such steps made sense in terms of supply and demand. For whatever reason, our hospitals were unprepared for the recent wave of mothers from mainland China.

Now 88,000 is cited as the maximum possible number of births before our medical system becomes overwhelmed.

Given the political will, lost capacity could be rebuilt to serve the baby boom. If medical tourism is good for the economy, then hospitals could add new wings and get permission to hire doctors and nurses from mainland China, making Hong Kong a childbirth hub.

Tens of thousands of additional births here would mean fewer abortions on the mainland. From the viewpoint of respect for the sanctity of unborn life, that would be wonderful.

Speaking to the United Nations in New York City on 4 October 1965, Pope Paul VI issued a challenge, “You must strive to multiply bread so that it suffices for the tables of mankind, and not rather favour an artificial control of birth… in order to diminish the number of guests at the banquet of life.”

Fear of newcomers

It is a safe bet that Hong Kong will not become a childbirth hub, because a few people here fear mainlanders. Mainland China outnumbers Taiwan by 58 to 1. Alluding to the blue in Taiwan’s flag, someone there said, “Merging with the mainland would be like one drop of blue ink falling into a bottle of red ink,” meaning being absorbed without a trace.

The mainland outnumbers Hong Kong by 190 to 1. Some local people worry about their taxes going to educate mainland Chinese students, increased urban congestion and rising rents, to be followed later by stiffer competition for jobs.

In 1999, Bishop (now Cardinal) Joseph Zen Ze-kiun supported the Right of Abode for children born on the mainland with at least one parent who was a permanent resident of Hong Kong. He also urged Catholic schools to enroll such children. Many people criticised him, but he quoted Jesus, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).

As the Sunday Examiner occasionally reports, domestic employees from The Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand, as well as South Asians, experience discrimination. However, as Asia’s World City, Hong Kong cannot afford to tolerate prejudice.

A young man in a remote Chinese village was poor, but ambitious. He asked himself, “How can I get to a big city?” He found a job there. A year later, he asked, “How can I move to Hong Kong?” and found a way. A year later, he wondered, “How can I fly to Canada?” and bought a plane ticket. A year later, he wanted to know, “How can I go to heaven?” New immigrants present an opportunity for evangelisation.

Population replacement, where newcomers and their children gradually take over, can generate social friction and even an ugly political backlash. Usually this is aimed at people of a different race, nationality or religion, but not always.

About 95 per cent of people in Hong Kong are ethnic Han Chinese, as are almost all of those coming from the mainland, but problems still exist.

For a comparison, consider country people with their rural residence card (户口) settling in mainland cities. They are not welcomed with open arms by every one of their cousins who enjoy urban resident status.

In the Divine Comedy, when Dante entered Paradise, one of the saints cried out, “Here comes someone who will increase our happiness!” In hell, the old saying applies, “Misery loves company.”

Both heaven and hell have ample carrying capacity. Only on earth do immigrants constitute a social problem.

Demand destruction for babies

In economics, when something becomes too expensive, people stop buying it. This is called demand destruction, and it is painful.

For example, on 23 February 2011, the cigarette tax was raised $10 per pack. Rather than pay an average of $52 per pack, some smokers found suppliers of smuggled cigarettes, while others finally quit and went through a period of misery. Cigarette consumption has diminished.

From the value-neutral viewpoint of economics, demand destruction also applies to children. People often postpone marriage until the ages of 32 or 35, needing to save money and purchase a flat. Couples complain about the high cost of rent, designer clothing for children, textbooks and private tutoring, which combine to limit them to at most one child.

When an item can be manufactured more cheaply elsewhere, the focus of production shifts. Half a century ago, Hong Kong produced sandals, umbrellas, plastic toys and other labour-intensive items.

When China opened to the outside world, Hong Kong’s factories moved to the Pearl River Delta. Cheaper wages in the interior of China are now causing those industries to move inland.

Likewise, since Made in Hong Kong children have become too expensive, the next generation will come here from China.

Why is it becoming more and more expensive to raise children in Hong Kong and in every other metropolis in eastern Asia? Karl Marx said, “The ideas of the ruling class, in every age, are the ruling ideas.”

People watch television programmes and advertisements, see the lifestyles of the rich and famous, learn the lesson that the good life requires massive spending, do the mathematics and conclude they cannot raise a big family in luxury.

The mainland has become another place which is actively promoting consumerism and the good life, as advertised on television.

Consumerism could destroy the demand for children in China, as has already happened in Japan and South Korea. As those governments have discovered, this trend is extremely hard if not impossible to reverse.

As a general rule, the future belongs to those who have children. The future of the pre-1997 gene pool is bleak. There is a huge, almost identical gene pool nearby eager to flood into our city and keep the economy growing.

This is not a-good-news-bad news joke; it is an existential anxiety of biblical proportions. “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” said Qoholeth, and one reason for his sorrow is that hard-earned wealth has to be left to others, who might foolishly squander it (Ecclsiastes 2:18-23).

It is usually a comfort to leave an inheritance to one’s biological or adopted children, or at least to a niece or nephew. Letting the court system distribute one’s assets to strangers can be a depressing thought.

The distribution of income

After months of debate, Hong Kong finally has a minimum wage of $28 per hour, effective this May 1. This directly affects one-tenth of the labour force, or 270,000 workers.

Whether it will directly benefit all of them is another question, since there are a number of ways for employers to avoid the full impact of paying higher salaries, such as dropping work or lunch breaks for fast-food employees.

Migrant workers and domestic helpers are not covered. Diocesan bodies, such as the Justice and Peace Commission, have spoken clearly, while the Sunday Examiner Kung Kao Po continue to cover this story in light of the social teachings of the Catholic Church.

A family wage, or living wage, is part of the social doctrine of the Church. A worker (in the 21st century, a working couple) deserves to be paid enough to feed, clothe and house a family.

In Hong Kong today, what annual income is required to support a family of four just above the poverty level? Or in reasonable comfort and security? What percentage of jobs in the territory pay those salaries? How many families care for a grandparent under their roof? How much does that cost?

While such figures must be in government publications or on-line somewhere, they are not easy to find. Certainly they are not prominently displayed in the news or cited by politicians.

As far back as 2001, the poorest 10 per cent of households in Hong Kong had only 0.9 per cent of the total income, while the top 10 per cent had 41.2 per cent. Inequality has worsened since then. Even with a mistress here and there, the richest 10 per cent of the people cannot have 41.2 per cent of the children.

Not the end of the story

Are current prices, rents, salary scales and income distribution in Hong Kong all God’s holy will? If not, then the newly introduced minimum wage is not the end of the story but just the beginning.

Catholics, other Christians, and all people who are concerned for social harmony have much work ahead of them. Please pray that amazing progress will be seen in the next half century, if not much sooner.