The threat to Hong Kong’s international status
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The threat to Hong Kong’s international status

Nationalism and bureaucratic folly make life tougher for foreigners, writes Asia Sentinel’s Philip Bowring

Foreigners and mainlanders who live in Hong Kong are seeing that despite its still-abundant attractions it is becoming gradually less open to them, a blow to the territory’s crucial role as the international center for the region and a magnet for the global financial and other industries.

The expatriate community, however, is on the receiving end of government decisions driven by a mixture of bureaucratic stupidity and ethnocentricity. Two recent ones stand out as damaging to the territory’s role as an international business centre.

One is the decision to cut off the English Schools Foundation (ESF) from public funds. The ESF was set up to provide a subsidized education for English-speakers in line with the subsidy paid to independently managed – often by Christian and other religious groups – local schools. Hong Kong’s most prestigious secondary schools almost all fit into the latter category, enjoying high standards thanks to the combination of government subsidy and the fees charged to mostly middle-class parents. Lower-income parents have to make do with government schools.

While the subsidy paid to independent Chinese schools has remained stable in real terms, that for the ESF has been gradually reduced and is now to be abolished. The grounds for this is that the ESF, following a curriculum different from that of local schools, is somehow a colonial relic of no relevance to Hong Kong today.

But this hides two prejudices ingrained in an upper-level, highly paid bureaucracy which itself is rich enough to send its children to any schools it wants. One is simply racial. The attack on the ESF is primarily aimed at those (mostly Asian) residents for whom English, not Chinese, is a first or second language.

Secondly it is aimed at local Chinese parents, many of whom hold foreign residence, who prefer an English-language education for reasons which include the fact that ESF schools are known to be less inclined to rote learning than local ones. The attack is another aspect of the attempt to make local education more “patriotic”.

None of this will make much difference to the rich, or foreign bankers with generous education allowances, who either or already send their children to very expensive international schools or to ones overseas. But the huge hikes in ESF fees will be a major blow to middle-class people local and foreign, a real deterrent to foreigners setting up small business in Hong Kong, or large businesses which like to have international staffs to run regional or global businesses.

As it is, ESF schools are overrun with applications, a sad commentary on the education on offer from local schools. Indeed, such is the demand for non-local education that most all the expensive international schools – or at least those without a nationality qualification – have a surfeit of applicants.

There is no reason other than the prejudice and phony patriotism of the education department bureaucracy for ESF schools not to receive the same subsidies as directly aided schools, or one based on the cost per pupil of government schools. Their parents pay taxes like anyone else.

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