Fertility rates have been falling in high-income countries and territories across the world, and Hong Kong is no exception, with the number of births declining drastically.

Children Kid Kindergarten youth young
Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Indeed, Hong Kong has the lowest fertility rate in the world, according to a report by the United Nation Population Fund released on April 19. And the impact of this years-long demographic trend has already surfaced in society.

In recent weeks, the city’s education secretary Christine Choi has said that five primary schools will not receive funding for first-year classes due to too few pupils enrolling. The schools might get “killed,” as some local news outlets reported it.

“If you say [withdrawing subsidies for] a class that is short one pupil amounts to a lack of compassion, then the same could be said for withdrawing it from a class of 14. What [class size] would be reasonable, in that case?” Choi asked a reporter at a press conference about the cancelled Primary One classes.

“It is an indisputable fact that the school-age population is declining,” the Education Bureau said in a document submitted to the Legislative Council in March. By 2029, the school-aged population aged 12 is expected to fall by 16 per cent from 71,600 this year to 60,100.

At the same time, there has been a marked increase in the median age of first marriages from 26.2 for females and 29.1 for males in 1991 to 30.4 and 31.9, respectively, according to the Census and Statistics Department.

A 2023 survey by the Hong Kong Women Development Association (HKWDA) showed that over 70 per cent of respondents aged 18 or above told researchers they had no plans to give birth.

Such sentiments are not limited to adults.

The Family Planning Association of Hong Kong surveyed over 8,000 secondary school pupils in 2022. The results showed that the number of boys and girls who wanted to have children in the future had plummeted from 84 per cent and 80 per cent, respectively, in 2011 to 70 per cent and 55 percent in 2021 – implying a more drastic change in young females’ attitudes to reproduction.

“It’s strange that secondary school students have lost faith in marriage and giving birth at such an early stage,” the chairperson of the research committee, Paul Yip, said during the press conference releasing the figures. The 2019 protests against the extradition bill, Covid-19 and the ensuing exodus from Hong Kong might have impacted the younger generation. Yip added.

Christine Choi
The Secretary for Education Christine Choi. File photo: GovHK.

He concluded that the government and individuals both contributed to this phenomenon, adding: “[we] need to build a society that makes the youth feel hopeful, so that they will stay and have kids.”

Not the best place for raising children

HKFP spoke to three young women born and raised in Hong Kong – a young mother, a physical trainer who now lives overseas, and a working woman who does not want to give birth – about their views on raising children in the city.

“I didn’t want kids, not that I don’t like them, but I just feel like they would be miserable… or at least not so happy growing up in Hong Kong,” Jinn, a 26 year-old physical trainer, told HKFP.

After the 2019 protests and unrest, both the UK and Canada launched fast-track residency pathways for Hongkongers. Jinn and her high school sweetheart Roy were among the young Hongkongers who have started afresh in Canada.

Initially, Roy, who studied in the US, was far from enthusiastic about emigration. However, he changed his mind after talking with Jinn about their future.

“She had not been a fan of marriage and kids since we began dating. However, after Canada announced its ‘lifeboat scheme,’ she told me one day that she thought starting a family there might not be a bad idea… and I was so shocked,” Roy said.

Jinn said she thought of Hong Kong as a place that prioritised financial success over other qualities.

Children Kid Kindergarten youth young
Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

“It felt like there was no other route to success beyond getting into university and becoming a professional,” she said.

‘Non-marriage doctrine’

Unlike Jinn, Stephanie said she had no intention of revisiting the idea of giving birth.

“For a long time, I’ve known I didn’t want to have a goddamn kid. But after 2019, I became really, really, really sure I didn’t want a goddamn kid,” Stephanie said, half jokingly.

Referring herself as an anti-nativist and “believer in non-marriage,” Stephanie said she refused to make the same mistake as her parents, who had “failed to perform their parenting duties.”

The 24-year-old, who works in marketing, also spoke about her lack of confidence in the future and in Hong Kong’s educational system. Regardless, it was financially impossible for her and her boyfriend to emigrate at the moment, she said.

“Most importantly, I simply don’t see how squeezing a baby out of me would benefit my life,” she said.

For Stephanie, a rising fertility rate was simply about maintaining the labour force and keeping society running – it had nothing to do with her well-being. “But I am the one who needs to devote my life to the decision [to have a baby],” she said.

May Fourth Movement ceremony school talk
May Fourth Movement anniversary ceremony at a secondary school on May 4, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The young Hongkonger said that her boyfriend was on the same page when came to marriage and children, adding that most of her friends in their 20s were not considering kids, either.

“I could never understand why anyone would want to have kids,” she said.

‘Teacher mum’

Fiona, a 24 year-old mother of a two-year-old son who works at one of the five primary schools directly impacted by declining demographics, said she understood why other Hong Kong women did not want to have children in the city.

“After becoming a teacher myself, I realised the problem lay with the educational system of Hong Kong,” she said.

Fiona recalled when she was teaching primary school pupils STEM – referring to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math-related classes – most children would not answer questions as they were too afraid of being scolded if they made a mistake.

Instead of encouraging pupils to speak up, her superiors advised her to stop asking questions that required “higher order thinking.” Just ask the students questions to which they could memorise the model answers, her fellow teachers said.

National Security Education Day 2023
National Security Education Day 2023 in Hong Kong. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

“I dare not say my son would be happier growing up in a foreign country, but at least he would be encouraged to be creative instead of being spoon-fed the correct answers,” Fiona said.

“Not to mention the removal of Liberal Studies, the emphasis on [Mandarin], and the politicisation of education after 2019,” she added.

Syllabus revamped

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, while requiring schools to allocate teaching hours to national security education.

In the years since its implementation, the curriculum has been overhauled. A core secondary school subject that encouraged debate and critical thinking, was replaced by a new course called Citizenship and Social Development course that has a greater emphasis on national security and identity.

“Even if I try to teach my son critical thinking at home, say whether it was reasonable to take the national anthem too seriously, he could be in legal danger if he accidentally leaked a word about the discussion at school,” Fiona said. In 2020, Hong Kong passed a bill that criminalised insulting China’s national anthem.

This was the critical factor that prompted her to make plans to emigrate to Australia with her husband and son next winter.

National Security Education Day 2023
Disciplined services in Hong Kong host an open day on April 15, 2023 as the city marks its National Security Education Day. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Even though the young mother is currently looking for jobs because of the potential school closure, being a primary teacher is still considered a stable and well paid occupation. Moving to Australia, though, means that Fiona will have to give up her career.

The worst case scenario would be working as a cashier, she said.

“Our future would be full of uncertainty, but at least that way we could finally have something to look forward to,” the young mother concluded.

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Lea Mok is a multimedia reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously contributed to StandNews, The Initium, MingPao and others. She holds a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.