A Minor Case Shows Depressing Change in Hong Kong

Hong Kong presents itself as Asia’s World City and constantly emphasizes how it is ruled by law and correct procedures. But as Hong Kong draws closer into China’s web, the reality appears to be increasingly diverging from the image.

One small example illustrates how the territory’s long-standing defense of civil rights is growing more subject to the kind of greed and bureaucratic arrogance that exists over the border. Recently a pregnant American woman in transit at Hong Kong International Airport who had been given medical clearance to fly suddenly started to deliver. What happened to the woman was emblematic of bigger, more problematic issues in which rights are being challenged.

For instance, it has recently been noted how police have escaped prosecution even though their beatings of unarmed demonstrators during last year’s Umbrella protest have been recorded and now seen by most of the population. Police also recently charged a mentally retarded person with murder on zero evidence just to try to claim the case was solved.

State-owned listed enterprises such as the MTR Corporation fail to abide by disclosure requirements. Meanwhile despite outcries in the media the police remain in the pocket of the rich and well-connected who are allowed to park their vehicles almost anywhere, causing traffic jams and pollution in the densest parts of the city.

Thus the case of the luckless pregnant mother is just one of an increasing number in the territory as it moves closer to rule by bureaucratic fiat and away from procedures based on law. In that case, the woman was taken to the government-owned Princess Margaret hospital where her baby was delivered on May 7 and received post-natal care which dealt with an initial breathing problem. So far so good.

However, the hospital authorities then refused to provide the mother with the paperwork necessary for the birth to be registered, without which the infant could not be issued a passport so that mother and baby could proceed to their destination, Xiamen. This was because the hospital bill, amounting to over HK$100,000 [US$12,900] had yet to be paid. This was hardly a surprise as medical insurance bureaucracies move slowly, especially when US insurance companies are faced with paying for emergency care overseas. But the government authorities were so obsessed with collection that they denied the mother what is both an inalienable right and a legal requirement under Hong Kong law – the registration of a birth with the relevant authorities.

It was only when the case received attention in the US media and that money was raised to pay part of the bill prior to payment by the relevant insurance company that the hospital agreed to release the papers for birth registration.

In other words it was holding the woman, a visitor, to ransom in contradiction of its legal responsibility for registration, an absolute requirement whereas payment of a debt is a civil matter for which there are other means for redress.

In short one of Hong Kong’s biggest public hospitals showed contempt for the law as well as displaying greed and total lack of sympathy for a woman whose premature delivery in Hong Kong during a stopover was entirely due to ill fortune.