Hong Kong bans birth tourism

Pregnant women aren’t usually the first to take to the streets, but in Hong Kong a proposed birth quota is causing a stir among expectant mothers. Under pressure Hong Kong’s Health Authority this month lowered the quota for how many non-local residents can give birth in the territory.

Some 88,000 babies were born in Hong Kong in 2010, almost half to mainland women from outside the territory. Hong Kong residents call it “birth tourism”– Chinese mothers-to-be who deliver babies in Hong Kong to escape the policies on the mainland.

Yang Hai Yan, 27, is 8 months pregant and still can’t find a hospital bed. “We feel very anxious,” she says. “We don’t know where we should deliver our baby.”

Earlier this month Hong Kong’s government lowered the quota for mainland women who can recieve maternity treatment. This year it is 35,000, including public and private hospitals – 7 percent fewer than last year.

The quota affects mainland couples and mainland women who have married men from Hong Kong. Some 7,000 private hospital places are reserved for Chinese women with Hong Kong husbands. Yang Hai Yan is one of them, but she says the reservation system has not worked.

“We want a better solution for us because my husband is a Hong Kong resident. He pays taxes so our family should enjoy the same local services,” she argues. Chan Chi-keung, Yang’s husband, agrees that the system discriminates aginst his wife.

“First my wife is only allowed to have a ‘tourist visa’ that expires every three months... What’s more, she cannot work in Hong Kong under current law. I am the only person who can take care of our family,” he says.

There are many attractions for mainlanders in Hong Kong. Children born in the territory get residency and the right of abode, which means free public education, greater political freedoms and a Hong Kong passport, which makes international travel easier. Hong Kong also doesn’t share China’s one-child policy so parents can have as many children as they like.

The issue is highly sensitive for local residents. For them, the trend is synonymous with overcrowding in maternity hospitals, which are already booked out until June this year.

Some private hospitals even prefer mainland couples because they can charge more than US$9,000 for each birth, while local mothers only pay around US$60.

The new quota has strong support from Hong Kong residents such as Jini Siu.

“I think the situation’s pathetic,” she says. “This is Hong Kong and we should serve Hong Kong pregnant women first, but now most of the resources are going to mainland women.”

The situation for mainland wives of Hong Kong husbands is especially complicated. Government data showed that more than 6,000 children were born to these cross-border families last year. Imposing a birth quota on these women is not fair, says Tsang Koon-Wing from the Mainland-Hong Kong Families Rights Association.

“Those mainland wives, they married men from Hong Kong. They have built up their families in Hong Kong so they are also part of Hong Kong society. So why does the government discriminate against them?” he says urging the government to make a clear distinction between mainland Chinese couples and Chinese mainlanders whose husbands are from Hong Kong.

Recently pregnant women took to the streets to protest the government's policy. Lin Yu Jing, 25, is five months pregnant with her first child after recently marrying a man from Hong Kong. She has tried to book a hospital bed for weeks now, with no luck.

“If we can’t get a place in a hospital here in Hong Kong, I have to go back to the mainland to give birth,” she says. “That’s going be very difficult for us and for our baby’s education. My child won’t be able to get Hong Kong residency and our family will be separate."

Public pressure has forced a change for next year. When the quota drops to zero in 2013, it will only ban mainland women without Hong Kong husbands.

Yet without another solution, it will be too late for the current wave of expectant protestors whose babies just can’t wait.

(This article was first broadcast on Asia Calling, a regional current affairs radio program produced by Indonesia’s independent radio news agency KBR68H.)