At Hong Kong's border, the pregnant pause

Mothers-to-be from mainland charged for maternity ward spot

August 13, 2007|By Ching-Ching Ni | Ching-Ching Ni,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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 behind the counter stared at her for a long time, considered her tourist visa, and asked whom she was coming to see.

"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 - her 7-month-old fetus.

Under rules imposed in February, mainlanders who appear to be in their third trimester and seek to travel to the territory 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 situation 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. Still, the integration is far from seamless. Hong Kong fears that poor mainlanders will abuse the territory's advanced social welfare system and inundate its hospitals, which charge local mothers next to nothing. Mainlanders consider the Hong Kong passport, to which people born here are entitled, a priceless gift to their children.

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.

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

Until reunification in 1997, Hong Kong was basically off-limits to most Chinese on the mainland. In 2001, a court case qualified children who were born to mainlanders in Hong Kong for permanent residence.

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. But authorities were unprepared for the legions of expectant mothers, who poured across the border along with the armies of shoppers.

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 horrific stories of late-term abortions and forced sterilization.

Benny Mak, a Hong Kong real estate broker 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," he said.

But China's one-child policy does not apply in Hong Kong. In fact, the Chinese territory's 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.

Although some private hospitals have benefited from the influx of rich mainlanders, public birthing facilities say they have been hit by freeloaders.

The local government responded by imposing the new fees and stepping up vigilance at the border.

Ching-Ching Ni writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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