Hong Kong’s low birth rate blamed on women’s “sexual problems”

More babies needed. Image: Getty.

In a recent study, Bloomberg found that Hong Kong will be the world’s most crowded city by 2025. So far, so unsurprising – the city-state is an island, so a bigger population will mean a denser one. Acually, though, the study also found that the area’s population will increase far less rapidly in the coming decades than the swelling cities of South America or Saudi Arabia.

In fact, while the population is still expected to go up thanks to high life expectancies, Hong Kong’s birth rate is dismal. Since 1960, according to figures from the World Bank, it’s fallen from around 5 per women to just 1.3. That's a more rapid decline even than that seen in mainland China, where the "one child policy" has been in place since 1979 (though it has recently been relaxed).

Low birth rates and long life expectancies are, unsurprisingly, leading to an aging population . By 2030, around a quarter of the city’s population may well be over 65.

So what gives? One explanation is that Hong Kong is a city, and people in cities tend to have less children than people in rural areas: space is at a premium, and you don’t need children to help out on the farm. In Shanghai, for example, there’s only around 0.9 births per women, compared to a China-wide average of 1.7. 

However, the Hong Kong Family Planning Association has come forward with a slightly different explanation. It’s all the women’s fault.

The association carried out a study, published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine earlier this year, which surveyed 2,146 21-40 year old women at birth control clinics and pre-pregnancy check-ups. It concluded that low levels of intimacy and sexual activity among women, plus something vaguely referred to as “sexual problems”, are to blame for the city-state’s falling birth rate. And before you ask, no – they didn’t carry out an equivalent study on men.

To solve the problem, Dr Lue So, the association’s senior doctor, has advised couples to “take turns to initiate coitus” and “have coitus two to three times a week and enjoy every moment”. Ah, the romance of spontaneity.

Not everyone is happy with this argument, and a recent Shanghaiist piece notes that blaming the birth rate on “lady problems” may be a little reductive: 

“It seems like the association's opinion of Hong Kong's low birth rate is more likely a result of the societal gender expectations that at best make the study biased and at worst may subconsciously affect these women's physical desires.”

The article also points out that “frequency of coitus” (as Dr Lue So would put it) doesn’t necessary correlate with the number of births – especially as many of the women surveyed were found through family planning clinics, more often associated with contraception than conception.

Which raises the possibility that maybe people just don’t want to have children. Time to invest in some nursing homes. 


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.