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Chinese moms-to-be are sneaking for 2

Mainlanders hide under billowy blouses to avoid a pregnancy fee to enter Hong Kong. The prize? A passport for baby.

August 12, 2007|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

hong kong -- Liu Jinling felt like a criminal when she crossed the border from mainland China into Hong Kong.

She tried to hide the bulge in her belly by wearing a loose-fitting blouse. She carried a big purse close to her body.

The Hong Kong immigration official stared at her for a long time, considered her tourist visa, and asked whom she was coming to see. Her heart raced when he stamped her documents and finally handed them back.

"I knew he was suspicious," Liu said. "When I walked away he turned to look at me again. I was so scared. I thought he must have regretted letting me pass and was going to drag me back."

Liu had good reason to fear. She was carrying contraband -- a seven-month fetus.

Under rules imposed in February, pregnant mainlanders entering the territory who appear to be in their third trimester are charged $5,000 to guarantee a spot in a Hong Kong maternity ward. Otherwise, they're not allowed to cross the border.

Liu didn't have the money.

Her predicament tells much about the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China a decade after Britain returned the territory to Chinese rule. On the surface, the merger is a success. Despite the fears of many of its people, Hong Kong has not been overrun by poor mainlanders. The mainland is transforming itself into a global economic power, and its free-spending tourists are a welcome boost to the Hong Kong economy.

Still, the integration is far from seamless. Hong Kong fears that poor mainlanders will abuse its advanced social welfare system and inundate its hospitals, which charge local mothers next to nothing. Mainlanders consider the Hong Kong passport, to which those born here are entitled, a priceless gift to their children.

"Every parent wants their children to be born and raised in the best environment possible," Liu said. "Hong Kong is superior in so many ways."

The new restrictions apply to Liu even though her husband, a taxi driver, is a Hong Kong resident. The rules would not apply if Liu was from Hong Kong and her husband was a mainlander.

"They raised the fees after I got pregnant," Liu said. "I am 37. If I don't have this baby now, I may not have another chance."

Although the steep financial hurdle did stop some mainland mothers-to-be, it has pushed others to take even greater risks.

When her time comes, Liu won't be able to show proof of payment. She will do what other women say they did: wait for her water to break and make a mad dash to the emergency room.

"I hope they take me in on humanitarian grounds," Liu said.

Until reunification in 1997, Hong Kong was basically off limits to most Chinese on the mainland. But in the early decades after the communists took over China in 1949, hundreds of thousands of illegal Chinese immigrants fled here to escape poverty and political turmoil.

Even after reunification, children born in Hong Kong to mainlanders did not automatically qualify for permanent residence. That began to change after a 2001 court case in which a Chinese boy born in Hong Kong was given the right of abode even though neither of his parents were residents.

The turning point came in 2003, when the SARS epidemic dealt a devastating blow to the territory's tourism industry. Beijing came to Hong Kong's aid by easing restrictions on travel, making it easier for mainland tourists to help boost the territory's economy.

Authorities, however, were unprepared for the legions of pregnant women who poured across the border along with the shoppers who sought to pick up Gucci bags and Rolex watches.

Mainland women came not just to take advantage of a superior public health system but also to enjoy the simple right of reproductive freedom.

On the mainland, efforts to curb the birthrate have led to many stories of late-term abortions and forced sterilization. Women on the mainland who are married to Hong Kong men are subject to the same family planning rules.

Benny Mak, a Hong Kong real estate broker who is married to a mainlander, said that when his wife got pregnant with their second child, the doctor recommended an abortion.

"If we stay in China, they could arrest my wife while she is still pregnant, make her get an abortion and pay a big fine. It would all be legal."

But China's one-child policy does not apply here. In fact, the Chinese territory has one of the world's lowest birthrates, and its leaders encourage residents to have three children per family.

The number of mainland babies born in Hong Kong each year shot up from a few hundred in the 1990s to more than 20,000 in the first 10 months of last year, about one-third of births in this territory of 6.9 million.

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