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Mainland Chinese mothers deluge maternity wards of Hong Kong hospitals

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 20, 2009; A21

HONG KONG -- Roger Huang is a happy, healthy baby boy, born in mid-September. But as far as the Chinese government is concerned, he doesn't exist -- not officially, anyway.

The baby was born in Hong Kong, after his mother, Huang Rui, a 31-year-old Beijing-based freelance journalist, moved here in June to join her husband, who is from Shanghai and works at a bank. The move was strategic; Huang plans to have a second child soon, and under China's "one child" family planning policy, Roger's Hong Kong birth doesn't count. (In recent years, China has softened its stance on the policy, with federal officials now debating even more radical changes.)

"My plan is to have two babies in three years, while I'm still not very old," Huang said. "Having the baby in Hong Kong is good -- we can have another child."

That loophole in China's one-child policy is one reason mothers from mainland China have deluged the maternity wards of Hong Kong's hospitals in recent years. Many women also come here for what they consider better medical facilities, which often have Western-trained doctors and nurses.

Children born here to mainland Chinese women automatically receive permanent residency status, entitling them to benefits including free education, free medical care and a Hong Kong passport with visa-free access to more than 100 countries.

The Hong Kong government reported that, for the first six months of the year, 44 of every 100 babies born in the former British colony had mainland Chinese mothers. The figure was about 18 of 100 in 2002, after which border controls were eased.

Trips to Hong Kong for births have become so popular that various pregnancy "booking services" have sprouted up, advertising online and through cellphone messages. The services include arranging the expectant women's travel permits to Hong Kong and hotel rooms.

The trend is a sign of China's growing affluence. Although past migrants to Hong Kong were poorer, mostly from neighboring Guangzhou province, the women now choosing the territory to give birth are often affluent professionals from Beijing or Shanghai; they fly to Hong Kong, skipping the train. They stay in hotels or rent apartments while awaiting the delivery. And they are willing to pay for top medical care.

"These people who want to come to Hong Kong are well-educated," said Yu Kai Man, a Hong Kong obstetrician and gynecologist. "Because they have the money, they think they deserve more."

Facing this cross-border fertility surge, Hong Kong authorities announced in October that they were suspending all maternity ward bookings at public hospitals for expectant mainland mothers for the rest of the year. The reason, according to a statement by the hospital authority: to ensure there was enough room for Hong Kong women during the peak baby season.

The suspension does not affect private hospitals, which welcome expectant mainland mothers as a way to fill maternity wards and raise revenue.

Hong Kong, a city of 7 million people, has been experiencing a relatively low birthrate, as more local women defer having children until later in life or choose not to have them. As a consequence, private hospitals rely on mainland women to keep their maternity wards full.

Yu said his facility, Union Hospital, in Hong Kong's New Territories district, records about 5,500 births a year, and "slightly more than half come from mainland China." He said the hospital has two "queues," one for local women, who get first priority, and the other for women from the mainland. "The first queue doesn't want to have babies," Yu said, "but the mainland queue is always full."

Overall, Yu said, having mainland mothers coming to Hong Kong to give birth "is good for business. This is good for the hospital, good for the doctors and good for everyone."

Hong Kong authorities take a different view. In 2007, to curb the flow of mainland women, officials implemented a pricing scheme that charges mainland women far more than locals who give birth in public hospitals.

But the pricing policy has generated controversy, in part because hundreds of mainland women who are married to Hong Kong men have been hit with the new fees. They argue that because their husbands are from Hong Kong and the couples live here together, they should not be treated in the same category as the more affluent "pregnancy tourists" who come from the mainland just to give birth.

"Our family is a Hong Kong family. The government is unfair to ask us to pay this fee," said a 31-year-old woman from Shenzhen, who lives here with her husband and their 2-year-old son. She spoke on the condition of anonymity because she has not paid her Hong Kong hospital bill.

Some of the women, with the help of the relief group Caritas, are meeting with other mainland mothers who have Hong Kong husbands to organize a way to petition the legislature to change the pricing policy. They say mainland women should be divided into two categories -- those married to Hong Kong men who live here and those who fly in only for their deliveries.

"Our husbands are Hong Kong residents," she said. "They pay their taxes to the government. Why are they treated unfairly?"

Special correspondent K.C. Ng in Hong Kong and researcher Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.

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