To get a sense of the education crisis facing the
future government of this prosperous but congested colony, stand
at lunchtime in the hallway of a six-story purple school building
on the western edge of Hong Kong island. Stand and watch 1,800
children in matching white uniforms moving in every direction in
a kind of controlled, cacophonous mayhem.
This primary school, like 680 others around the territory, is officially designated as "bi-sessional." In practice, that means the schoolhouse operates as two schools in one building, with about 900 students attending classes from morning until half-past noon, and another 900 from 1 p.m. until evening. There are two principals and two sets of teachers. Students have only five hours of classroom time, very little space for such things as physical education and neither lockers nor hot meals.
As Hong Kong prepares for a historic transition July 1 ending 150 years of British rule, the incoming Chinese administration is facing a range of leftover problems on such issues as housing, welfare and the environment. But perhaps no area is more in need of immediate attention than Hong Kong's overburdened, highly regulated education system.
Topping the schools' agenda is serious overcrowding, which is likely to increase with the expected influx of thousands of immigrant children from China. Beyond that immediate crisis, some of the transition's most emotional issues are being played out in the territory's classrooms: How should teachers deal with sensitive topics of Chinese history, such as the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre? What should be taught about politics and democracy when the new government is talking of rolling back electoral reforms?
And there is another, extremely sensitive concern: Which language, English or Cantonese, should be used for teaching?
Tung Chee-hwa, the man chosen by China to run Hong Kong beginning July 1, has made reform of its struggling education system one of his top priorities. Tung has appointed Antony K. Leung, a managing director of Chase Manhattan Bank, as a member of his executive council with special responsibility for education.
Leung is now holding a two-month series of public sessions -- meeting with teachers, parents, principals, politicians and business groups -- aimed at helping Tung formulate a comprehensive education policy to take Hong Kong into the next century.
The first job, Leung said, is to upgrade facilities, and that means building more schools and spending more money -- which wealthy Hong Kong, with $46 billion in reserves, has in plentiful supply. Hong Kong now spends less than 3 percent of its gross national product on education, compared with 5 percent in most developed countries.
"We must put more resources into basic education," Leung said. "A half-day school is just not acceptable." With crowded, half-day schools, students have little time to speak with their teachers and during their off-hours often end up hanging out in video game parlors or getting into trouble with street gangs.
If Leung speaks with a tone of urgency, it is because the overcrowding problem is likely to increase dramatically after the handover. There are now 932,165 students in Hong Kong. But just across the border in southern China are an estimated 130,000 children born to Hong Kong fathers -- all of whom have the right to move here and enter local schools after July 1.
Another difficult issue facing the new government will be how to imbue students with a new sense of Chinese nationalism and patriotism, particularly in a society made up largely of refugees from Chinese communism who remain skeptical about the incoming sovereign power.
At the Sheng King Hui Primary School, Principal William S.H. Lee shows visitors a box containing the latest educational aids from the government education department. The teaching kit is called "Know More About China," and it includes a fold-out, three-dimensional map of China, a jigsaw puzzle that forms the new seal of what will be the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and useful tips about Hong Kong's incoming administration. The school has sponsored an essay competition to encourage students to learn more about the handover.
In the past, under a school system largely patterned on the British model, very little attention was paid to politics or civics, and geography and history courses were largely devoted to teaching young people about Europe, not China just across the border.
The government even has a law on the books that allows the governor here to control "the dissemination of information, or expression of opinion, of a clearly biased political nature in schools."
That law was rarely used, because schools, and students, remained largely apolitical. Hong Kong's democrats are now trying to repeal it before the Chinese take control.
"Nothing is going to change for me," said Lisa Yip, principal of Shatin Tsung Tsin High School. "I'm not going to hang the national flag or have the students sing the national anthem every day."
In the past, this school's teachers and administrators seem to have come close to the limits of what the future government might consider "biased" political information in classrooms.
For example, a few weeks ago, Yip ordered her school's teachers of Chinese history to take 140 students on a field trip to a local movie theater. They went to see The Gate of Heavenly Peace , a documentary film on the June 4, 1989, massacre by Chinese soldiers of hundreds, if not thousands, of students rallying for democracy in Beijing.
Chinese history teacher Hugo Cheung, who accompanied the students, said he thought seeing the film was good for his class because "it showed them some of the facts they didn't know already." But he also knows that after July, an outing to see a controversial film -- or broaching such sensitive topics as Taiwanese democracy -- may mark him as a subversive in the classroom.
"Avoid sensitive issues like June 4; that is what we have been asked to do," Cheung said. "We've been advised to scurry around these issues." Beginning in July, he said, "I will be more and more careful in talking about these kinds of events. Some history teachers say they will just slide over it, just skip it."
Principal Yip's school is one of Hong Kong's officially designated English-language high schools. Most students at the school seem to have no problem speaking English, although a group of students interviewed said they never speak English at home or with friends. But the students here at Shatin Tsung Tsin may be the linguistic exception. Of Hong Kong's 460 high schools, about 85 percent are English-language institutions -- but almost everyone agrees that the English spoken in Hong Kong, even by high school graduates, is far from fluent. Students do not get to reinforce their English education at home, where they often speak Cantonese, and some understand so little English that they fail to grasp much of what is taught in the classroom.
Advocates of "mother tongue" teaching say students should be educated in their native Cantonese and learn English as a foreign language. The idea is catching on; the government education department ordered all high schools to switch to instruction in Cantonese this year unless they can prove their students and teachers are fluent in English.
Some parents oppose the move to Cantonese, believing their children will fare better later in life if they graduate from English-language schools. "My mother and father always force me to speak English," said Maxine Li, 18, a high school senior, speaking in Cantonese. "They think English is more important."
"What we have to make sure is that, while there is more use of Chinese and less use of English in some sectors, we increase English proficiency" said education czar Leung. "That's one of my most difficult challenges."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company