Cross-Border Mothers Lost In One Country Two Systems

A Hong Kong pregnant woman protested against the influx of mainland Chinese mothers. (Getty Image)

Many low-income Chinese mothers now learn the consequence of giving birth in Hong Kong.

Bao from Mainland China doesn’t want to reveal her real name. She fears retaliation from the mainland government when she speaks out for her rights. She is struggling daily to raise two twin boys alone in Hong Kong whom she gave birth to in the same place. Bao had a son in Guangdong Province before the twins. Her initial thought was to raise the children in her hometown and never return to Hong Kong.

She said she didn’t know if she had made the right choice. Without a Hong Kong citizenship, Bao is not allowed to work at all, even picking up recyclable items on the street is illegal.

“Every night I can’t sleep,” Bao said. “I don’t know if it helps or harms my children when I made the decision to have them in Hong Kong.”

According to the 2012 report of the Steering Committee on Population in Hong Kong, babies born to mainland parents made up 37.5 percent of the total birth in 2011. Like the U.S., anyone born in Hong Kong automatically receives a citizenship. Many Chinese parents have a second child there to avoid punishment for violating the One-Child Policy. In recent years, Hong Kong has tightened its rules and no longer allowed pregnant women from the mainland to give birth in public hospitals. Wealthy families have turned to the U.S. to carry on the mission.

For mothers like Bao, challenges ensue as the child without Hukou, a Chinese household registry, cannot attend public schools. While many parents live by the Shenzhen border and send the kids across everyday to attend school on the other side, low-income families are split with the mother and child living in Hong Kong and the father working in the mainland to support them.

Bao’s husband works in a factory in Guangdong for about $320 a month. Raising three children proved immediate financial dilemma to the rural family. They couldn’t afford private schools for their children, so Bao brought the twins to Hong Kong in hopes of getting some government welfare to get by.

Government welfare allowances are only applicable to Hong Kong children with Hong Kong guardians. Wai Chi Chee, lecturer of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said many mainland women have to give up part of the allowance to the guardians as a reward.  They live in tiny spaces with other families in an apartment. Low-income Hong Kong citizens can claim government apartments, but the mainland status of the mothers and the underage Hong Kong children are denied such access.

Bao has to go back to Guangdong to renew her tourist visa every three months. It takes at least 10 days each time. She will bring the twins with her and let the boys miss school. Bao said it’s a huge financial burden on her husband to support the three of them in Hong Kong, and his hair has turned grey. Her oldest son often asks why she left him behind, which she doesn’t have an answer for.

Hong Kong locals’ skyrocketing rage towards mainlanders has scarred the mothers with discrimination and slurs. Chee said mainlanders are called “locusts,” a hostile suggestion that they flock in to rip off local resources.

“The low-income mothers are at the low-rung of the social ladder,” Chee said. “A lot of hostility and anger towards the mainland are directed to them.”

Samuel Wong runs a non-profit organization, Cross Border Children Concern, to provide information and support to the mothers. He said it’s very difficult to fundraise for the cause, because no locals want to help these women. Even government workers give them attitude, Wong added, saying they don’t deserve to be helped. To become a Hong Kong citizen, Wong said the parents have to wait till they turn 60 and the child turns 18.

“There is no mechanism here to give up [the child’s] Hong Kong citizenship [either],” Wong said. “The child can’t get a Hukou even if their parents pay the mainland’s [second child] penalty fees. So the mothers don’t have any way to go. Living costs in Hong Kong are very high, and there is no solution or momentum in both Hong Kong and the mainland.”

Bao said she is willing to take the blame as long as her children have the space and respect to grow up with. Her boys, though, have already been affected by the discrimination, Bao said, they are very shy and afraid to talk to people, and so is her oldest son who is growing up in the mainland without a mother. Tan Lei Shek, a sociology professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said in an interview with the South China Morning Post these children have a higher rate of anxiety and depression at an early age.

Chee interviewed about 40 cross-border families in her study. Regret is prominent among them, many even have a death wish. The ambiguity of the One-Child Policy falls into interpretation of local governments. Some women she interviewed said they also paid a fine to the local government for having a second child in Hong Kong. Chee said the Hong Kong government didn’t envision the problems when they opened the door for the women to give birth in Hong Kong as a way to boost the economy after SARS in 2003.

In Chee’s report, one of the mothers said, “Sometimes my son makes noise. The relatives whom we are staying with are annoyed. I talk to my son but he is too young to understand. He is only three. I hit him and he cries even louder. Once I went totally crazy as he cried and cried. To make him stop crying, I pressed my hands on his throat. I covered his mouth with a blanket. I even threw him into the rubbish bin. Then I held him tight in my arms and we both cried our hearts out. I really collapsed. Several times I saw no hope. I only want to jump off a building with my two kids.”

Both Chee and Wong warned more problems will emerge as families are separated long term. Bao said she rarely talks to her husband on the phone due to the high roaming fees. When she goes back for her visa, her husband seldom spends time with the twins because he has to work. Bao said the situation will become more difficult when the boys go to elementary school, but she doesn’t think about the future, and only takes one step at a time.

“If I could choose again, I would definitely not come to Hong Kong to give birth…I feel I am neither here or there. I fell into this path. There is no way back, and there is no way out,” said another mother in Chee’s report.