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Mainland moms desire Hong Kong deliveries

Pregnant Chinese women sneak into the city, where infants get rights to permanent residency.

March 11, 2007|Sylvia Hui | Associated Press Writer

HONG KONG — Pregnant women seemed to have invaded her working-class neighborhood, Joanna Leung recalls. They strolled in pairs through the fish market and along the lanes running past concrete buildings stained gray with soot. And they spoke with thick accents.

"Suddenly, there were so many pregnant women in the area," said Leung, a member of Hong Kong's city council.

Eventually, she learned the women were among thousands of mainland Chinese coming surreptitiously to give birth here -- and get permanent residency rights for their newborns in this prosperous business city, with its better schools and other benefits.

The surge has become a headline-grabbing issue in recent months, since Hong Kong officials announced that many of the new mothers are skipping out on hospital bills and creating a burden on taxpayers.

In 2003, about 10,100 babies were born to mainland Chinese staying in Hong Kong. Over the first 10 months of last year, the latest period for which there are statistics, the number jumped to 20,577 -- nearly two-fifths of all births in the city, the Hospital Authority said.

The government is cracking down. But while authorities are hiking delivery fees for mainlanders and turning away pregnant women at the border, many worry the problem won't go abate unless the national government gets involved -- and it has kept mum on the issue.

The controversy highlights one of the oddities of this former British colony. The city has retained a wide degree of autonomy since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, but national leaders in Beijing often have the last word on Hong Kong affairs.

Chinese from the mainland need special travel permits to visit Hong Kong, even if their spouse is a legal resident, and they must apply for residency to stay. But no matter what their parents' status, children born here are classified as permanent residents.

It's a prized status. Although China's economy keeps booming and the country appears to have a strong future, many mothers-to-be are keenly aware of the nation's problems: harsh rural poverty, poor medical care and underfunded schools.

Pregnant Chinese women are using elaborate networks to slip across the border, but finding one willing to talk about her situation is difficult. Many hire agents who arrange their trips to Hong Kong and set them up in apartments, usually shared with several other women in their final weeks of pregnancy. In public, the women stick together or go with their agent.

Many of the mainlanders are married to Hong Kong men, who link up with the women on frequent business trips across the border.

"My husband is from here. I think the [hospital] services here are better," said a mainland woman waiting to deliver at Hong Kong Baptist Hospital. She would only give her surname, Zhang, but said she is from Shenzhen, a city just across the border.

In 2003, most of the mainland mothers were like Zhang. Four out of five of the babies born to mainland women then had fathers who were Hong Kong residents, the Hospital Authority said.

But in recent years, word of the advantages of having a Hong Kong-born baby spread to middle class women in provinces farther north.

The number of Hong Kong babies whose parents are both nonresidents has jumped sixfold, from 2,070 in 2003 to 12,678 during the first 10 months of 2006, the authority said.

"Chinese people who can afford it are coming to pave an alternative road that offers obvious advantages. They're buying an opportunity for better development," said Siu Yat-ming, a sociology professor at Hong Kong's Baptist University.

"It's much easier to leave the country for studies or a career from Hong Kong," he said. "It's not that China can't provide what they want. But you know, in China the common saying is: 'Finding a doctor is hard. Going to school is harder.' Competition is huge, especially for university places."

China's one-child policy also appears to be motivation for some who come to Hong Kong.

"Most of them insist they don't want Caesarean sections ... because they want to have a second or third child," said Alice Sham, a manager at Kwong Wah Hospital's obstetrics ward, where about one in three patients are mainlanders.

It's hard for Chinese authorities to track down a couple who has a second child born in Hong Kong, unless the couple goes to the government for schooling and welfare benefits for the child. Many women now coming to give birth here are well-off and have no need for those benefits.

"If they are able and want to raise more than one child, they have no choice but to seek services outside China. Hong Kong is so convenient to them," Sham said.

The typical pregnant mainlander is in her 20s and well-prepared, Sham said. The woman is most likely accompanied by her agent, who ensures she leaves with a birth certificate.

Because many of the women come as tourists, then illegally overstay to give birth, they generally avoid dealing with hospital admission procedures. Most call an ambulance and show up at a hospital at the last minute.

Some in the community say the flood of mainland mothers is a solution to the city's low birth rate and rapidly aging population. But most, including local officials, believe it has to be stemmed.

The influx has already provoked a backlash among expectant mothers who are legal residents.

"My pregnant friends say they have to camp out in the corridors. There's just not enough staff to take care of us, and that feels really unsafe," said Wong Chui-chi, a 28-year-old Hong Kong woman in the seventh month of pregnancy.

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