By Tan Ee Lyn
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong may bar mainland Chinese mothers from giving birth in public hospitals next year to ease over-crowding in local maternity wards, the city's health chief said on Tuesday.
Since it reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong has benefited from its deepening integration with China. Yet the unfettered access of mainland Chinese to public services in the densely populated city has also caused social strains.
"Right now, we expect that in 2013, all public hospital obstetric services may be reserved for local pregnant mothers," Hong Kong's Health chief York Chow told reporters.
The comments came after the financial hub's leader-elect, Leung Chun-ying, said private hospitals should bar mainland Chinese mothers and that their newborns will no longer be able to claim permanent residence in the city.
"If they apply now and prepare to come to Hong Kong next year to deliver their babies, in all likelihood, their babies will not have permanent residency status in Hong Kong because once I assume office, I will surely work on this," Leung told Hong Kong's Cable Television in an interview on Tuesday.
Leung, a property surveyor and Beijing loyalist was chosen in March to succeed the bowtie-wearing Donald Tsang by a 1200-member, largely pro-Beijing election committee, in a scandal-tainted contest that protesters denounced as a "small circle" affair puppeteered by Beijing's leaders behind the scenes.
Leung's tough stance on the mainland mothers signals a move toward a more populist agenda once he takes office on July 1, that has included pledges to provide more land for public flats and to make housing more affordable.
Leung did not say if the city would pass laws or use other methods to stop the children of mainland parents from gaining the right of abode, or permanent residency, in Hong Kong.
The pledges by authorities to tackle the hot-button issue come after street protests by local mothers, heated online debates and provocative advertisements in local newspapers denouncing mainland Chinese visitors as "locusts", including mothers crowding out Hong Kong's maternity wards for months.
In 2010, of the 88,584 newborns in Hong Kong, around a third, or 32,653 were born to mainland women, up from 620 babies in 2001.
The influx has spawned an industry of agents shuttling Chinese mothers across the border, hiding them in illegal 'inns' before birth, partly to circumvent China's one-child policy and also to gain the right the live in one of the world's most developed, wealthiest cities.
A broad provision in Hong Kong's mini-constitution grants Hong Kong citizenship to any Chinese born there.
"Everyone should know Hong Kong society already has a clear consensus about this matter. One, delivering babies of couples with no residency right is not the way we want to develop our healthcare industry. Two, such offspring are not the solution to the problem of our ageing population," Leung said.
Chow, the city's health secretary, said that he was in touch with Leung and respected his view of suspending the quota system, but a final decision had yet to be made.
Private hospitals that increasingly rely on maternity services said a sudden policy change would have a major impact.
"Can we change our mode of operation? Yes we can, but not suddenly. If we are given say three years, we can make a long- term plan," said Alan Lau, chairman of the Hong Kong Private Hospital's Association.
But Henry Yeung, president of the Hong Kong Doctors' Union, said blocking automatic permanent residency would ease the crowding at maternity wards.
"This move will return maternity beds to local mothers. Before this trend, private hospitals managed to survive."
(Additional reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Ed Lane and Daniel Magnowski)