HONG KONG As hundreds of millions of Chinese counted down to the Year of the Dragon, the clock was also ticking for thousands of mainland women scrambling to deliver "lucky" babies in Hong Kong, putting pressure on medical facilities and stoking protests in the city.
Lured by residency rights and in a bid to avoid China's one-child policy, Hong Kong has seen a surge in the number of mainland women coming to give birth, prompting authorities to cap the number of births permitted in the former British colony.
With the New Year being rung in on Monday, parents across China aspire to produce "Dragon Babies" in the hope that the symbol, long associated with emperors, power and intelligence, will bring wealth and luck. Doctors have warned some women may even turn to illegal means to dodge the cap.
Hong Kong agreed last June to cap at 34,000 the number of non-residents allowed to give birth in the city. That compares to 40,000 mainland women who gave birth in Hong Kong in 2010, when total births amounted to more than 88,000.
Newspapers have reported cases of mainland women illegally crossing the border and skirting the rules by going straight to emergency rooms in public hospitals to deliver their babies.
"At that point the hospital can't reject them," said Jianfa Shen, Geography and Resource Management professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
As a special administrative region within China, Hong Kong largely runs its own affairs under the "one country, two systems formula." Hong Kong also has its own currency and legal system -- the "one child" rule does not apply.
There were 1,656 cases of non-local mothers making emergency room deliveries last year, just over twice the 2010 figure, the Hospital Authority has said.
Dragon years have generated baby booms before, so hospitals are sure to feel the heat as forecasters predict a healthy birth rate for the rest of the year.
PREGNANT WOMAN, MOTHERS WITH STROLLERS PROTEST
Up to 1,000 demonstrators -- pregnant women, mothers pushing strollers and hospital workers -- have taken to the streets to protest against the squeeze on maternity wards.
Hong Kong's Chief Executive, Donald Tsang, has raised the issue with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
"As long as the mainland has restrictions on multiple births, and as long as Hong Kong has a good reputation for maternity care, then I think there will still be an interest (in giving birth in Hong Kong)," said John Bacon-Shone, director of the University of Hong Kong Social Sciences Research Centre.
The number of maternity bookings at Prince of Wales, a public hospital, has climbed 15 percent for the first six months of this year compared to the same period in 2011, said T.H. Cheung, the hospital's head of obstetrics and gynecology.
Private and public hospitals are adding facilities and adjusting fees in the face of rising numbers, with some wards renovating to accommodate more patients in the coming year.
Some private hospitals have raised prices for mainland mothers to as high as HK$58,000 ($7,500) for a natural birth in a standard room of four to 14 beds, while Hong Kong charges non-residents HK$39,000 for a pre-booking at a public hospital.