Prospects for Education in Hong Kong

In Chinese Box, a recent film directed by Wayne Wang and starring Jeremy Irons and Gong Li, the Hong Kong transition forms the backdrop for an inquiry into relationships and identity. There the dying British journalist asks the Chinese nightclub hostess with whom he is in love how the "arrival of a new pimp" will change life in Hong Kong.(1) Though director Wang insists that this is not an overtly political movie, it nonetheless stimulates our thinking as to the implications of the Hong Kong transition for its people both culturally and educationally. The suggestion lying behind the question posed, it seems to me, is that Hong Kong is, after a distinctive history of the past century and a half, neither British nor Chinese. Rather, Hong Kong is a tertium quid, a distinctive society certainly not British but no longer fully Chinese. Ironically, "one country, two systems" may be easier to implement in the realm of business and economics where everyone seems to agree that "to get rich is glorious" than in that of culture and education. I speak from a greater familiarity with the PRC than with Hong Kong itself, but it certainly appeared to me as I attended a Conference on education in August at Chinese University of Hong Kong and listened carefully to papers presented by academics from both the PRC and the SAR that Hong Kong's educational transition may be complex and difficult.

That the new Hong Kong SAR government has its own priorities for education in the Region is apparent from the appointment of Antony Leung, an international banker with experience in America and Asia, to head Hong Kong's task force on educational policy. As Tung Chee-hwa and Leung understand the educational imperative, it "is to move from a colonial system geared toward creating an English-speaking civil service elite, to entrepreneurial, self-starting international businessmen and women fluent in several languages that can keep Hong Kong ahead in what it does best-international commerce." While acknowledging that Hong Kong is part of China and that schools must teach children to think of themselves as Chinese, Leung insists that the schools must also teach students to be "outward-looking." Thus, while endorsing Tung's call for more "patriotic education" to promote nationalistic feelings for China, Leung warns that "the spread of anti-foreign sentiments must be avoided in the process of decolonialization."(2) Attending many sessions on language education, civic education, and moral education at the recent Chinese University conference, I did not sense a very clear understanding of this distinctive role being formulated for Hong Kong education on the part of speakers from the PRC. Rather, I sensed an assumption that the distinctiveness of Hong Kong education resulted from alien British influences that might now quickly pass from the scene. It is scarcely surprising that, within the Hong Kong SAR, educational policy is, according to some, driven by a desire to protect the Region's educational establishment from simply being taken over by the far more numerous professionals from the PRC.

The current status as well as the prospects for education in Hong Kong vary considerably whether one is focusing on the primary, secondary, or higher (tertiary) level. Each level faces challenges specific to itself. Higher education was a growth area in Hong Kong during the final years of British rule. During the 1980s policy makers sought to establish a stronger and internationally competitive university system in Hong Kong, to train more professionals, and to provide educational opportunities at the collegiate level for a much broader segment of the population. Existing institutions were expanded, two of the colony's colleges were upgraded to universities, a new Hong Kong University of Science and Technology was established, and all of Hong Kong's tertiary institutions began an international recruitment drive to strengthen their faculties. The percentage of high school graduates entering collegiate level institutions increased from three to about eighteen percent.

However, the business community and other community leaders have come to question whether the massive investment in higher education has been cost effective. Criticism has grown with a recent decline in the growth rate of the economy. Thus, even before the transfer of sovereignty, questions about the cost and value of higher education were beginning to be heard in Hong Kong.(3) Efforts designed to address problems of cost effectiveness can certainly be anticipated, and Hong Kong universities will experience tighter budgets in the immediate future. The triennial budget for 1998-2001 cuts per-student spending by ten percent over three years. Faculty recruitment will focus more on ethnic Chinese and less on Western scholars. Positions for entering freshmen have been frozen at the current level of about 14,500, and students who fail either the English or the Chinese entrance examination will be required to pay full university fees. The SAR seems unlikely, however, judging from policy statements both by Leung and by Beijing officials, to deviate radically from directions already being taken. The Chinese and American pattern of a four year undergraduate curriculum may well replace the British three year pattern, and the shift of curricular focus toward business and technology will certainly continue in Hong Kong as elsewhere. It is quite unlikely that either Beijing or Hong Kong will seek to impose on Hong Kong tertiary education the operational framework that still prevails to a very large extent in the PRC. That framework, patterned after the Soviet system and designed for a centrally planned economy, is widely recognized by Chinese educational leaders as anachronistic and ineffective.(4)

More troubling are issues of academic freedom. Here the British influence has left its mark on the higher education establishment in Hong Kong, and assumptions there differ significantly from those in the remainder of the PRC. Since July 1, the SAR government has been circumspect in its treatment of these issues, but the universities are clearly worried. Unfortunately, the result may be, as in areas of culture and religion, an informal system of self-censorship designed to avoid confrontation and resulting in a narrowing of expressed opinion without the imposition of formal restrictions.(5) Even before July 1, there were reports of increasing self-censorship among scholars. Professor Raymond Wacks of the University of Hong Kong expressed this opinion to James Hertling and added that "there are perfectly natural and human impulses not to jeopardize careers with provocative or dangerous publications or views."(6)

This problem was highlighted in June when students at the University of Hong Kong wanted to display on campus a twenty-six foot tall sculpture commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. University officials at first refused. When the issue reached the newspapers and radio, a compromise was reached. The statue was allowed to stand temporarily outside the student union, and Vice-Chancellor Cheng Yiu-chung denied any efforts at political censorship. A greater controversy erupted in August when David Chu, a member of the SAR legislature, called on the universities to promote "patriotic education" and rid the local education system of colonial influences. He also attacked Professor David Baum of the Chinese University and Professor Tim Hamlett of Baptist University as unfit to teach in Hong Kong, apparently because they challenged his views. After a public row in which Hamlett described a letter Chu sent to his university superiors as "a farrago of racist abuse," Chu apologized "at great length and in handsome fashion according to Hamlett as quoted in the South China Morning Post.(7)

At the primary and secondary level, problems of language instruction, patriotic education, and history instruction loom large. Hong Kong schools have been preparing for the transition for several years, but the issues at stake were suddenly thrust to the fore in Hong Kong by a statement of China's Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, last March. Qian declared that "the contents of some textbooks currently used in Hong Kong do not accord with history or reality, are not suited to the changes after 1997, contradict the spirit of 'one country two systems' and the Basic Law, and must be revised." Any fair assessment of the situation in Hong Kong will suggest that Qian was certainly correct with respect to some issues addressed in history and the social sciences. For example, the explanations provided for Hong Kong students regarding British seizure of Hong Kong frequently mention trade but neglect such troubling topics as opium. Even Chris Patten admitted that revision was appropriate though he added the caveat that "in a free society, teachers are not told what facts they can teach and what fact it is politically wrong for them to teach." Nonetheless, Hong Kong teachers are accustomed to a system in which schools are free to pick the texts they wish and wary of any efforts that appear to impose a single text with a single point of view.(8) Their general indifference to complaints such as those of Qian seems to assume that there will always be many texts and that teachers will always have wide latitude in teaching from a text. These are reasonable assumptions based on recent Hong Kong experience. They may be less reasonable if measured against recent PRC experience. This would appear to be an area in which the maintenance of two systems is absolutely essential.

Language instruction has been and promises to be a significant problem for the Hong Kong schools. A policy of "valuing English above Chinese" has been attributed to British colonial rule. That policy was sorely challenged by the rise of Chinese nationalism at the beginning of the present century as well as by the massive immigration of Cantonese speakers in recent decades, but it was not until 1974 that Chinese language instruction received full recognition in Legal Regulations for Language. Even then Chinese language teaching was not given the attention that many both in the SAR and in the PRC believe it deserved though the reasons for this neglect are complex and not necessarily attributable simply to the colonial mentality. A 1973 recommendation that secondary instruction be in Chinese with English studied as a second language was ignored by the schools, and subsequent Education Commission policies shifted back and forth in advocacy of a variety of solutions.

The Hong Kong Basic Law provides that "in addition to the Chinese language, English may also be used as an official language by the executive authorities, legislature and judiciary of the Hong Kong Special Administration Region." For the Hong Kong people, still divided over the relative merits of instruction in Chinese as opposed to English, this provision seems to guarantee the maintenance of a system of two written and three spoken languages in Hong Kong. Yet some in the PRC read the provision as establishing "Chinese as a major and English as a minor" language.(9) Such an interpretation may seem obvious north of the SAR, but it is neither obvious nor necessarily practical there. Furthermore, the clear expectation of Beijing that spoken Chinese will be putonghua and that the hanzi characters will be simplified adds to the difficulties of language instruction in Hong Kong. The curricular prominence of English today derives as much from its presumed value in international business as from the colonial heritage of the Region, and that will not soon change. Students in Hong Kong still value admission to English language schools because they associate learning good English with having a better future. In this judgment they do not differ greatly from their counterparts in the PRC. Nor do crash courses for teachers to change the mode of instruction necessarily succeed.

Language guidelines issued in late September require all Hong Kong schools except those with a special exemption to teach in the mother tongue from form one next year and in form two and three the following years. Schools are permitted to shift back to English instruction at form four and five. Less than a quarter of Hong Kong's secondary schools and less than five percent of primary schools were expected to be instructing in English this year. But the training of teachers in language instruction has been and remains a problem. A Hong Kong group termed the Education Policy Concern Organisation, composed of teachers, parents, and students, has recently complained to the authorities that Cantonese-speaking teachers who have been trained for their jobs in English are not well enough prepared to conduct lessons in their mother tongue. It has demanded a three year freeze in the requirement that teachers offer lessons in Cantonese. The vice-chairman of the group accused the Education Department of regarding mother-tongue teaching as a "miracle cure." She added that "the officials are too simple-minded. The fact is they have been promoting mother-tongue education for more than a decade. But so far less than 20 percent of the schools have followed."(10) With teacher reluctance or sense of inadequacy in teaching in Chinese reinforcing student and parental assumption that English language instruction opens doors to more attractive careers, the actual transformation of the language of instruction is Hong Kong is likely to be slower and more difficult than initially anticipated by policymakers.

The area of political or civic education is also likely to present difficulties for Hong Kong educators in the near term. On the one hand, civic education became a central concern in the Hong Kong community during its period of transition from British to Chinese sovereignty. Yet recent studies of Hong Kong secondary students have revealed little understanding of government, law, and politics, and only moderate interest in Chinese affairs and politics. Students appear to lack a sense of national identity and patriotism and hold generally negative perceptions of the Chinese government and Communist party.(11) Much of this is blamed, fairly enough, on colonial education. Yet it is far from clear that British departure will radically alter the attitudes of Hong Kong students.

In 1985 the Hong Kong government adopted a more active role in promoting civic education as is evident in its Guidelines on Civic Education in Schools published that year. Again in 1993 the official School Education in Hong Kong: a Statement of Aims declared promotion of social, political, and civic awareness to be a central aim of school education. However, "'civic education', or the notion of 'citizenship', as an ambiguous, diffused, and over-encompassing concept suggested by the Guidelines, allowed various interpretations and resulted in different civic education programmes with different orientation and emphasis."(12) Characteristically, the Hong Kong government gave the schools a relatively free hand in implementing political and civic education, but until 1990 such efforts were hampered by an explicit regulation limiting classroom activity:

Civic education was diffuse, fragmented, and sometimes simply ignored. Nor was it well received by the teachers. Tse Kwan-choi concludes that "Many teachers were not interested in politics and they did not put much emphasis on political education. Some teachers held a confused conception of civic education and equated it with moral education. Although most teachers agreed with promoting civic education in schools, a large proportion of teachers never read the Guidelines and conducted civic education accordingly." Furthermore, in the textbooks "China was presented as a neighboring country or merely recognised as motherland in terms of both ethnic, geographical and historical linkages with Hong Kong, rather than the object of political loyalty." All of these problems were reinforced by traditional teaching methods that provide students with "little opportunity to discuss issues and practice critical thinking and action skills, value analysis, and inquiry learning."(14)

Nothing has changed since July 1 except, perhaps, the expectations of Beijing and of the SAR government. The very concept of "one country, two systems" reinforces the ambiguities that existed prior to the transition and that continue to exist in the minds of students and teachers alike. I began these remarks with the observation that Hong Kong is neither fully British nor fully Chinese but a tertium quid. This fact made civic education difficult and led to its depoliticization under the British. It makes civic and language education no less difficult under Chinese sovereignty. The enthusiasm of Hong Kong Chinese for the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty was great and genuine. Whether that enthusiasm can be translated into an effective civic education that will build or strengthen loyalties to the state remains to be seen. Success, in all probability, depends as much on attitudes in the PRC as on actions initiated in the SAR. It is here that I anticipate the greatest difficulties as China and Hong Kong together look to the future.

In the recent past, the People's Republic of China has not experienced great success in dealing with the issue of cultural diversity whether emanating from Xizang, Xinjiang, or elsewhere. Hong Kong presents the problem anew in a rather different context, and the elaboration of Hong Kong educational policy provides the forum for a reconsideration and possibly for a more effective response. We all hope that this context will inspire new and creative efforts at resolution and result in a pattern of accommodation that can become a model for the reduction of tensions elsewhere in China as well as the maintenance of a strong Hong Kong culture. For this to occur, Beijing must come to understand that, however much the people of Hong Kong genuinely celebrate the end of colonialism and their return to Chinese sovereignty, the Middle Kingdom is, as of this point in time, only one of the parents who have nurtured and shaped the people of Hong Kong. Hong Kong must be allowed to be Hong Kong. "One country, two systems" must be allowed to prevail in education no less than in economics and politics.


1. "Hong Kong Handover is Canvas for Bitter-Sweet Movie," Inside China Today (, September 5, 1997.

2. "Hong Kong: Mapping Out a Path for Post-Colonial Education," Inter Press Service (, May 27, 1997; document ID: ZZ19970807400010773.

3. James Hertling, "Education's Growth in Hong Kong Raises Concern over Quality," Chronicle of Higher Education, November 22, 1996, p. A39.

4. Min Weifang (Peking University), "Major Strategic Issues for Chinese Higher Education Development for the 21st Century." Paper presented at the Fifth International Conference on Chinese Education in the 21st Century, Chinese University of Hong Kong, August, 1997.

5. Journalists have spoken openly of this problem with respect to the Hong Kong press for months. A recent illustration from the cultural arena was the decision by some of the Hong Kong film distributors not to show the new film Seven Years in Tibet or the forthcoming film Kundun that is based on the life of the Dalai Lama. That decision was announced on October 20. The following day the Hong Kong Secretary for Recreation and Culture, Brian Chow, told reporters that "under existing laws there is nothing to prevent these movies from being exhibited or shown in Hong Kong." "Government Says Tibet Films Can Be Shown," Inside China Today (, October 21, 1997.

6. James Hertling, "Anxiety Increases at Hong Kong's Universities as July 1 Nears," Chronicle of Higher Education, June 27, 1997, p. A45.

7. "Academic Freedom Row Flares," Inside China Today (, August 5, 1997; "Nationalist Politician Apologizes," Inside China Today, August 6, 1997; James Hertling, "Universities in Hong Kong Start to See the Impact of Chinese Rule," Chronicle of Higher Education, September 26, 1997, p. A51.

8. Edward A. Gargan, "Currents from China Stirring the School Waters," New York Times, April 3, 1997.

9. Dan Zhaobin (Hubei College of Education), "Review and Prospect of the Language Policy in Hong Kong," p. 12. Paper presented at the Fifth International Conference on Chinese Education for the 21st Century, Chinese University of Hong Kong, August, 1997.

10. Shirley Kwok, "Teachers 'not ready' for language switch," South China Morning Post (internet edition,, October 3. 1997.

11. Tse Kwan-choi (University of Warwick), "Preparing Students for Citizenship?: the New Challenges of Political Education for Hong Kong Schools," pp. 1-2. Paper presented at the Fifth International Conference on Chinese Education for the 21st Century, Chinese University of Hong Kong, August, 1997.

12. Ibid., p. 5.

13. Education Regulation No. 98; quoted in Lee Wing On (University of Hong Kong), "Civic Education in Hong Kong in Political Transition: A Case Study Report for the IEA Civic Education Study," p. 3. Paper presented at the Fifth International Conference on Chinese Education for the 21st Century, Chinese University of Hong Kong, August, 1997.

14. Tse, "Preparing Students for Citizenship," pp. 6-7.


Samuel C. Pearson
Professor of Historical Studies, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville
Visiting Professor, Northeast Normal University, Changchun

Prepared for presentation at the annual meeting of the American Association for Chinese Studies, State College, PA, November 1, 1997.
copyright 1997, Samuel C. Pearson