Hong Kong Fears Hordes of Chinese Anchor Babies

In the United States, politicians occasionally raise the specter of hordes of pregnant Latin Americans crossing the border to gain birthright citizenship for their children. Hong Kong (which has one of the lowest birth rates in the world) is a short car ride from mainland China, but worlds apart in terms of quality of life and educational possibilities; many mainland women try to time a visit to the autonomous city-state for a fortuitous birth. Mainland China’s daily Caijing discusses the territory’s supposed ‘anchor baby’ problem.

In recent years, Hong Kong has seen an influx of expectant mothers from the Chinese mainland who travel to the city to give birth in order to gain access to social welfare benefits or skirt the mainland’s family planning policy.

The influx of mainland mothers dates back to 2001, when the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal ruled that Zhuang Fengyuan, a baby boy born in Hong Kong whose parents are Cantonese, was a permanent Hong Kong resident in accordance with Article 24 in The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Later, the Hong Kong government amended its Immigration Ordinance.

The Individual Visit Scheme, which allows travelers from the Chinese mainland to visit Hong Kong and Macau on an individual basis, was introduced in 2003. After that, the number of mainland expectant women who came to Hong Kong to give birth soared. By 2010, babies born by non-local parents (in which neither parent is a permanent resident of Hong Kong) accounted for nearly 37 percent of all newborns in Hong Kong. The 130,000-plus babies which have been born to non-local parents since 2001 have become a primary driving force for Hong Kong’s population growth.

Middle-class families from the mainland choose to give birth in Hong Kong so that their children can get access to the city’s high-quality education and healthcare systems and enjoy a better quality of life. And due to the policy of “One Country, Two Systems,” Hong Kong can be an ideal place for those who wish to circumvent the mainland’s one-child policy.

The high number of births has overwhelmed obstetrics departments in both public and private hospitals in Hong Kong: beds at obstetrics departments are in short supply; obstetrics departments in private hospitals charge more; and turnover of obstetric medical staff has increased, which has led to increased complaints from locals about mainland expectant mothers profiting at the expense of the local populace. To ease tensions, the local government enacted several new measures in 2007 including reducing annual quotas for non-resident expectant mothers and raising their health care charges.

As the local government tightens control over mainland mothers giving birth in Hong Kong, some expectant mothers from the mainland resort to illegal means. They conceal their pregnancy from customs officers in order to enter Hong Kong, and then wait until the last moment to rush into emergency rooms at public hospitals without reservations. Out of humanitarian considerations, hospitals have to receive them.

The Year of the Dragon traditionally witnesses a baby boom. The Hospital Authority announced that they recorded 179 cases of mainland expectant mothers rushing into emergency rooms without reservations in Jan. 2012; while the number of expectant mothers who concealed their pregnancy to enter Hong Kong increased 108 percent over the same period last year, when 86 expectant mothers (53 of them had reservations) entered Hong Kong this way.

The Hong Kong Hospital Authority estimated in early 2012 that 5,000 to 6,000 mainland expectant mothers would have made it into emergency rooms in Hong Kong illegally if the Immigration Department had not intercepted them.

Locals have denounced the agencies which help mainland expectant mothers give birth in Hong Kong illegally and the unlicensed hotels which accommodate them. Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-Kuen stated in late January of 2012 that the government would take four measures to crack down on such women cheating their way through customs, including: cooperating with the mainland to crack down on agencies and cross-border vehicles which aid expectant mothers, while preventing forcibly repatriated women from reentering Hong Kong; reinforcing interception of non-local expectant mothers and promptly repatriating mainland pregnant women who have cheated their way through customs; and stepping up efforts to combat unlicensed hotels; the Hong Kong Housing Authority would step up its inspection and publicity efforts to prevent public housing from being used illegally.

Director of Immigration Eric Chan Kwok-Ki added that the Immigration Department will take three measures to cope with the situation, including: cooperating with the mainland to crack down on agencies which use private cars to smuggle mainland expectant mothers into Hong Kong; preventing mainland women who are pregnant for 28 weeks and don’t have reservations from entering Hong Kong; and notifying mainland police authorities to stop repatriated expectant mothers from re-attempting entry.

Meanwhile, there is heated debate about the potential impact the babies born by non-local parents could have on the city should they choose to reside and study in Hong Kong in the future. Some are worried that they would put substantial pressure on the city’s public facilities and support services.

As permanent residents of Hong Kong, babies born in Hong Kong by non-local parents can enjoy 12 years of free education. The Hong Kong Education Bureau stated on Dec. 30, 2011 that there were 13,000 children who travelled to Hong Kong daily for school in 2011. Among them, the number of kindergarten students increased the fastest, from 3,786 in 2010-2011 to 5,708 in 2011-2012. It is estimated that by 2013, one out of every four first graders in primary school will be the offspring of non-local parents. Previously, due to the declining birth rate in Hong Kong, the local government focused on reducing the number of schools and outplacing teachers.

At present, there is a consensus among many that Hong Kong should formulate long-term population policies. On Jan. 1, 2012, the Legislative Council moved to propose “reviewing the population policy.” The motion contended that “the increase in the influx of mainland expectant mothers is putting mounting pressure on Hong Kong’s hospitals and relevant medical services; in the meantime, babies born by these expectant mothers potentially put pressure on Hong Kong’s education, social welfare, long-term healthcare, housing, and employment. However, the Special Administrative Region Government lacks long-term planning in its governance and allocation of financial resources, resulting in stop-gap policies. Some believe the ultimate solution lies in the reinterpretation of provisions on the “right of abode” in Hong Kong Basic Law by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.

Peng Qingzhu, director of the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong S.A.R, said on Feb. 8 that babies born in Hong Kong by mainland parents violate China’s population and family planning policy. The mainland will work with the SAR Government to resolve this issue, said Peng.

By staff reporters Li Xiangning, Zuo Lin, Li Wei'ao, and Hong Kong correspondent He Peixin