Education Reforms in Hong Kong: Which way will they go?

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Hong Kong, where I grew up, is a fascinating place due to its British colonial history and its geographic location adjacent to Mainland China. I did not realize it until I left the region to observe it from a different perspective. Unavoidably, the education system has been greatly influenced by the changing governance from British to Chinese influence since 1997. In this mega city, nobody has been able to escape the sweeping tide of political transition, including the turmoil and challenges faced by the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) in implementing new policies. Hong Kong history perfectly exemplifies policy borrowing from England and then from China in its education system.

British government never failed to impose its systems on the (former) colonies. After a 100 years of British rule, which resulted in Hong Kong’s transformation from a small fishing village to a metropolitan city, it is not hard to find traces of British culture in every corner of this city, including double-deck buses, or exactly the same street names as those in England, and even the concept of an afternoon tea time. Politically, it has a legislative system similar to parliament, a Chief Secretary to run a wide ranging bureaucracy, and Minister working as an Executive Council under a Chief Execute. Besides political and cultural influences, the British introduced major reforms in the education system as the most effective way to instill British values in the next generation. Therefore, all students are required to learn English from the age of three in kindergarten.

Using English as a medium of instruction may have been a plus, enabling Hong Kong citizens to be linguistically competent in both the East and the West. It has also pleased Chinese parents so much. For previous generations, good quality education was not accessible until the British government executed nine-year compulsory education in 1978. We cannot forget that the parental influence on children in Chinese culture can affect the life of the next generation. Parents strongly believe that their children (especially with good English language skills) could lead them to flourishing lives, not only at schools but also along their career paths.

In addition, Hong Kong used to have the educational structures greatly modeled on those of the United Kingdom, including six years of primary school, seven years of secondary school, with three years of tertiary education for those who could succeed in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination and Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination.

Before the handover of sovereignty in 1997, China and Great Britain agreed that Hong Kong would follow “One Country, Two Systems,” i.e. that it would remain unchanged for 50 years and that during this period Hong Kong would gradually converge with the Mainland.  This policy was issued by Deng Xiaoping, the Paramount Leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), for the reunification of China during the early 1980s. It simply meant Hong Kong could retain its distinct identity, political system, and strengths as an international business, financial, shipping, and aviation centre, while the rest of China would continue to align with the socialist system.[1]

However, this agreement did not prevent the Chinese government from wiping the colonial influence in Hong Kong.  Since Tung Chee-hwa, the first HKSAR Chief Executive, started his term, the education system has undergone constant reforms.

Since the post-colonial period, changing the medium of instruction in secondary schools has been one of the most controversial policies in Hong Kong’s education. Prior to the 1970s, English was still the only official language, which earned a supreme status in people’s mind.[2] English was the language of government, education, academia, and law. It was always considered an elite language. This mindset has been implanted for generations.

In April 1997, three months before the handover, HKSAR government published a document regarding compulsory Chinese medium instruction policy. It suggested that using mother tongue would help students understand education content more thoroughly. On the contrary, many students, parents, and the schools held opposite ideas and protested against it. In September 2007, the government stepped back to give more freedom to schools to be exempt from this policy.[3] As a result, only 25% of the secondary schools were approved to continue EMI (English as a Medium of Instruction) education, whereas the rest of the secondary schools must use CMI (Chinese as a Medium of Instruction) in teaching most subjects except English.[4] This shift made Hong Kong citizens realize the political nature of the education reform.

Furthermore, the new language policy required teachers to enhance their language proficiency. Thus, there was an emergence of Language Proficiency Assessment for Teachers in 2008 to mainly assess the Mandarin and English skills. In 2009, there was a new curriculum introduced at senior secondary level, Liberal Studies. This subject has been a great challenge to Hong Kong students who did not get much training in critical thinking in the old education system. In the same year, another dramatic reform was the application of the Chinese educational system, which followed the American model of “three-three-four” (middle school-high school-tertiary education). This has affected all levels of local students and educators. It has also meant getting rid of the British structure. Students would end up having one public examination, the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE), instead of taking two that were mentioned earlier. The most controversial area was the introduction of civic education in 2012, which caused a series of radical protests initiated by political parties and youth.

Changing language policy in education was only the first wave of reforms that the HKSAR government has initiated to decrease the British influence over the years. The reactions of parents, students, and educators have been very strong, reflecting not only the deep-rooted mindset about the privileged status of English in this city, but also the achievement of British rule over the citizens during its colonial period. The entire reform movement generates more societal instability, which inevitably lowers the confidence of parents in the local schools.


[1] GovHK (2013). Government. Retrieved from http://www.gov.hk/en/about/abouthk/facts.htm

[2] Poon, Anita (2004). Language Policy in Hong Kong: Its Impact on language education and language use in post-handover Hong Kong. Journal of Taiwan Normal University, 49. Retrieved from  http://www.ord.ntnu.edu.tw/ntnuj/j49/j491-13.pdf

[3]  Poon, Anita (2004). Language Policy in Hong Kong: Its Impact on language education and language use in post-handover Hong Kong. Journal of Taiwan Normal University, 49. Retrieved from  http://www.ord.ntnu.edu.tw/ntnuj/j49/j491-13.pdf

[4] Shiwen, Pan (2000). Hong Kong’s Bilingual Past and Present. Hong Kong Institute of Education. Retrieved from http://www.uri.edu/iaics/content/2000v10n1/08%20Pan%20Shiwen.pdf

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