The Hong Kong government has imposed new rules to cut the number of mainland Chinese women entering the city to give birth. However, there are doubts that the new measures will keep the flow of pregnant mainlanders from overburdening city hospitals. VOA's Heda Bayron has this report, prepared by Juliet Ye in Hong Kong.

Starting this month, mainland Chinese women in advanced stages of pregnancy will be turned away at the Hong Kong border unless they have confirmed appointments at a hospital in the city.

Under the new rules, Hong Kong hospitals will also charge mainlanders nearly $5,000 to deliver their babies here, double the current fee.

In the first 10 months of 2006, a total of 20,577 babies were born here to mainland women - more than 39 percent of all births during that period. The government estimates the new rules will cut mainland births here by up to 20 percent.

The new policy may sound cruel, but the government says it is necessary because the number of mainland women giving birth in Hong Kong has risen rapidly in recent years. Hong Kong women complain that they have to compete with mainlanders for hospital beds and nursing care.

Mainland mothers are also causing financial problems. Many leave without paying hospital fees, straining the territory's overburdened health care system. The government says unpaid fees by non-residents exceeded $40 million in the past five years, and more than 70 percent of that was owed by mainlanders.

Ella Lau, a mother-to-be, is spokeswoman for a group of pregnant women formed to bring the situation to public attention. She says she thinks the new measures will reduce crowding in maternity wards.

"With the new rules coming into effect, the government will be able to stop the number of mainland mothers from coming across the border checkpoints," she explained. "We welcome the policy and believe the new measures will be effective."

While some mainland women seek Hong Kong's more advanced medical care, most want to deliver here so their babies will have Hong Kong residency.

The former British colony, which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, is far wealthier and more advanced than most mainland cities. Under Hong Kong's mini-constitution, anyone born here automatically receives permanent residence.

The group Human Rights Monitor says some mainlanders also come here to have a second baby, which is forbidden to city dwellers under China's one-child policy of population control.

Under the new rules, immigration officers at the borders will make the final decision on granting entry, with the help of health care personnel. But Lee Hok-lim, chairman of the Immigration Service Officers Association, says it will not be easy to maintain a balance between law enforcement and the safety of pregnant women.

"Most of the time, we have to deal with mainland pregnant women with flexibility," Lee said. "I believe we are facing a lack of personnel. The government urges us to avoid using force, but if the pregnant women react irrationally by hurting themselves or my colleagues during the examination, I think physical contact is inevitable."

Some lawmakers doubt the effectiveness of the government's measures, in part because of the growing popularity of travel agencies on both sides of the border that specialize in helping mainland women come to Hong Kong to give birth.

Several so-called birth tour agencies have Internet sites advertising their services.

The agencies charge from $1,800 to $2,200 for a 10-day package including transportation, accommodation, arranging hospital services and help with paperwork. Hospital fees are not included.

Employees of two birth tour agencies declined to speak to journalists, but when a reporter posed as a pregnant woman, they said their services are legal.

A woman who gave her name as Miss Ho works for an agency that has offices in Hong Kong and in the nearby mainland cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen. She says the women originally come to Hong Kong only for an examination.

"Once a contract has been signed by the client and the company, my colleague in Hong Kong will accompany the client to Hong Kong for a pre-natal check," she explained. "After that, the client will stay in Shenzhen or Guangzhou."

The agencies say their clients re-enter Hong Kong 36 weeks into their pregnancies, only days before they are ready to deliver, because most travel permits for mainland visitors are limited to seven days.

Women working in these agencies say their clients do not even have to get out of the car at the border checkpoints: the driver takes care of the immigration formalities while the women wait.

Legislator Kwok Ka-ki, who represents the medical profession, says mainlanders will be able to get around the restrictions.

"It will be not difficult for them if they want to come to Hong Kong at an early stage of pregnancy. They can stay and hide until the very last day," Kwok said.

The agencies say they are confident the new rules will not affect their business.