Hong Kong has the seventh highest divorce rate in the world. It hasn’t always been that way. Forty years ago, with a population of about five million, fewer than 2,000 divorces were granted each year. Today, with seven million people, the figure hovers around 23,000 a year.
Professor Richard Wong Yue-chim, Philip Wong Kennedy Wong Professor in Political Economy and Chair of Economics, has been looking at the impact on families, the housing market and society as a whole. One of the most striking features is the heavy concentration of divorce among poorer people. Census figures from 2011 show 46 per cent of the 226,400 divorced households were in the bottom income quartile. Divorced households also made up the vast majority of single-parent households – more than half of these lived in public rental housing and 40 per cent received Comprehensive Social Security Assistance. As a consequence, more than 100,000 children were living in single-parent households, mostly with their mothers.
How did these imbalances come about? Divorce is common in most modernised societies and Hong Kong’s divorce laws have become more relaxed since the 1970s. But Professor Wong sees another factor behind this trend: the opening of China and the growing number of cross-border marriages.
Cross-border marriages date back to the late 1970s, when China started to open its borders and the British colonial government practised the ‘reach base’ policy that granted refugees from the Mainland full residential rights if they made it to Hong Kong.
“Over 18 months, 300,000 people came, mostly men, and due to the gender imbalance here they returned to China to find brides. Elderly or semi-elderly men from Hong Kong who were poor and single also looked for spouses across the border,” Professor Wong said.
With the rule change to get entry into public housing, it created an incentive to divorce their local wife. They could marry their girlfriend from across the border and she could come to Hong Kong.
Professor Richard Wong Yue-chim
One-way permits were subsequently provided to let up to 150 brides join their husbands in Hong Kong permanently. However, housing was an issue. The couples could only qualify for public housing if ‘more than 50 per cent’ of the household was a Hong Kong permanent resident – which was not the case when one of them was from the Mainland. This rule was relaxed in the late 1990s to ‘more than or equal to 50 per cent’ and subsequently divorce and remarriage rates jumped.
“It was likely quite a lot of married men in Hong Kong had mistresses across the border,” he explained. “With the rule change to get entry into public housing, it created an incentive to divorce their local wife. They could marry their girlfriend from across the border and she could come to Hong Kong.
“In low-income households, the divorced wife probably stayed in the public rental market with the children. The man went into the private sector as an interim measure before marrying his mistress, creating demand for subdivided units. This drove rapid demand for public sector housing and in the private sector to subdivide units to increase yields, which added pressure to private rents because the number of whole units in the market was reduced.”
The data support this interpretation. The number of remarriages involving a spouse from across the border started to increase sharply, from less than 2,000 in the year 2000 to more than 12,000 by 2012. “The number of remarriages with Hong Kong brides and Hong Kong grooms has remained stable at 4,000 to 5,000 a year. But cross-border remarriages are skyrocketing,” he said.
Since it is mostly men who remarry across the border, there are far more divorced women in Hong Kong (although more Hong Kong women are remarrying to Mainland men) – in 2011 there were more than 90,000 divorced men against more than 170,000 divorced women.
This brings Professor Wong to the question of the longer-term impacts of divorce. Since divorce is concentrated among the poor and children usually stay with their mother, more and more children are growing up disadvantaged.
“In all societies, children that grow up in low-income, single-parent households and in poor neighbourhoods are far more likely to develop all kinds of problems. They become less motivated in learning, have no positive role models, set low aspirations, have no discipline, and have higher incidents of drug use, teenage pregnancies and criminal activity.”
He said more research was needed to understand the problem in Hong Kong, but the evidence elsewhere was that investing in pre-school education could help to mitigate the damage. Otherwise these children will continue to be disadvantaged and pass that onto their own children. “Intergenerational mobility is more and more worrying because if you are disadvantaged at an early age, it is difficult to catch up,” he added.
A Class Divide : Divorce And Cross-Border Marriages In Hong Kong
Hong Kong has one of the highest divorce rates in the world but it is concentrated disproportionately among the poorer classes. At the same time, cross-border marriages have skyrocketed. Professor Richard Wong Yue-chim explains the links.
The number of divorce decrees granted in Hong Kong surged from 6,295 in 1991 to 22,271 in 2013.
(Source: Hong Kong Monthly Digest of Statistics, January 2015)