Children pay high price as Hong Kong fears future

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The Independent Online
As fathers leave the colony to try to

secure a new base for their families,

those left behind face uncertainty and

isolation, writes Stephen Vines

It is confusing enough being a child at the best of times, but in Hong Kong there are disturbing signs that child disorders and abuse are growing as the uncertainties of moving towards Chinese rule increase.

Hong Kong has a decaying social system, leading to a worrying increase in violence and sexual abuse against children, according to the Hong Kong Pediatric Society and the Against Child Abuse (ACA) campaign.

A study by the Learner Teachers Association among school-age children found that the changes in Hong Kong society were leading children to doubt "the meaning and value of life".

A third of the 4,208 secondary-school students interviewed expressed concerns about the move to Chinese rule. The uncertainties were making the children abandon long-term goals and concentrate on more immediate gratification.

The looming change of sovereignty has driven some 1,000 people to leave the colony each week.

As they go, families are divided and pressure increases on mothers who are left to look after their children without support from either husbands or the extended family which used to play a prominent role in traditional Chinese family life.

Priscilla Lau, the director of ACA, says that "this is a stressful situation. We find children left alone as parents are travelling back and forth".

She explains that most child-abuse cases are the responsibility of mothers who come under particular stress as they suddenly have to cope with children alone.

It is common for the main breadwinner to go off to a foreign country to establish a base or place of escape, leaving the family behind.

Some breadwinners stay in Hong Kong, where earning potential is better, and send the family abroad to establish an overseas base.

The fathers are known in Hong Kong as "astronauts", because they seem to be perpetually in space, only rarely coming down to earth.

Whichever way families divide, the splits cause serious problems for children. Joseph Lau, a government psychiatrist, explains that the problems are also profound for those who remain. He says that in some middle-class schools up to a third of pupils leave each year to emigrate and many teachers go. It creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and sadness, because, "Friends are what count most in children's lives," Dr Lau said.

Dr Lau finds they also talk about concerns over the loss of freedom once China takes over. They seem to have a strong sense that they will not be able to do things which they do now.

Studies show that some children feel that they or their families are inadequate because they are not emigrating. They think they must be less successful and therefore not wanted by foreign countries.

The problems for children would be eased if parents were willing to discuss family matters, but Dr Lau says this is not the Hong Kong way of doing things. He says some parents even wait to the very last minute before telling children that they are about to leave the colony.

The longest-running film in Hong Kong recently was a Japanese production called the Yen Family: the Yens sacrificed everything in pursuit of wealth. It struck an extraordinarily strong chord here, where many families view their best hope for survival as getting as much money as possible to insulate themselves from the perceived perils to come.

The trouble is that family life is not compatible with the obsessive scramble for money. While parents are out working day and night to secure the future for their families, the children are left at home alone, feeling neglected and vulnerable.