Hong Kong's financial elite shun prestigious local schools as protests mount

Protesters hold their positions outside the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong on Nov 17, 2019.
Protesters hold their positions outside the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong on Nov 17, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - At Hong Kong's most prestigious local schools, the admissions process can be brutally competitive. Demand for openings almost always exceeds supply, and children from the city's upper echelons often get rejected.

But as pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong intensify, some financial professionals who once coveted such schools for their children are now steering them away.

With children as young as 11 getting arrested for participating in the protests, these parents - a mix of Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese - are worried that the city's local system of government-run and subsidised schools has become far too politicised.

Said Ms Janey Cheng, 34, who works in the insurance industry and recently scrapped plans to get her son into a highly competitive local school: "We wanted our kid to focus on his education instead of becoming political." She sent him to a private international school instead.

Interviews with other Hong Kong parents and education consultants suggest Ms Cheng has plenty of company.

ITS Educational Services, which helps families apply to schools, has seen a 30 per cent surge in inquiries and applications to Hong Kong international schools and overseas boarding schools over the past year. At least a dozen families from mainland China who had planned to educate their children in Hong Kong are now looking at boarding schools in Thailand and Singapore, said Ms Anne Murphy, an ITS director.

Hong Kong's schoolchildren have played a major role in the city's pro-democracy movement, winning praise from supporters who applaud their civic engagement at an unusually young age. But as the protests grow more violent and rhetoric on both sides of the political divide turns more extreme, an increasing number of parents are taking steps to insulate their children.

While Hong Kong offers a wide variety of education options, the city's schools can be broadly divided into two categories: local and international.

Local schools include those run by Hong Kong's government as well as some private institutions that offer a government-recommended curriculum. Many of the teachers are from Hong Kong and classes are at least partially conducted in Cantonese.

International schools tend to follow an international baccalaureate curriculum or are modelled after overseas education systems like those of Britain and America. They usually have a higher proportion of expat students and teachers and are generally viewed as less influenced by local politics. They're also a lot more expensive: the annual fee for primary-aged students at the prestigious Chinese International School exceeds HK$200,000 (S$35,000).

Parents cite varied reasons for growing wary of the local system. For some, particularly those from mainland China, the worry is that their children will be pressured by peers and teachers to join the protests and risk being ostracised if they do not.

 
 

"I've seen kids holding up signs against the police, but they are too young to understand politics," said Li, a 36-year-old insurance broker who is among the roughly one million people who've moved to Hong Kong from mainland China over the past two decades. She's applying to eight international schools for her four-year-old son next year.

"I fear that the local teachers would spread ideas to the young children with their own prejudice," said Li, who asked that her full name not be used because the topic is sensitive.

School administrators have been trying to prevent political tensions from spilling into their classrooms, but they haven't always been successful, said Chiu Cheung Ki, chairman of the Hong Kong Direct Subsidy Scheme Schools Council.

The city's education bureau disclosed last month that it received 58 complaints between mid-June and mid-September about teacher conduct related to the protests. It said two cases were substantiated, five weren't, and the rest were under investigation.

Students at local schools have organised strikes, sit-ins and human chains on campuses, and in some cases have risked their lives in front-line clashes with police. Of the 3,440 protest-linked arrests between June 9 and Nov 7, police data show that 208 - or 6 per cent - involved children under 16. Last month, an 18-year-old student was shot near the chest and a 14-year-old took a bullet in the thigh.

Said Mr John Tang, who teaches at a local secondary school where children between 16 and 17 are the most active protest participants: "They learn from online forums about how to negotiate with teachers and schools for permission to go on strike and also how to influence their classmates.

"Students who don't agree with this kind of behaviour don't talk about it, because it's almost impossible to have discussions these days. The more radical students will shout and scold you if they can't win over a debate."

To many observers, the students' political engagement is impressive. Said Prof Joseph Cheng, a professor at the City University of Hong Kong and a pro-democracy activist: "These young people, especially many of those in secondary schools, they are doing very well in their exams and they can have bright futures to go to good universities and become doctors or lawyers and yet they are putting themselves out there."

 
 

Mr Thomas Chang, 34, who works at a foreign-exchange brokerage in Hong Kong, prefers to shield his children from the city's divisive climate. He considered sending his younger daughter to a local school before the protests escalated, but has since opted for the international system and wants his children to attend university overseas. "I don't want my kids to be affected," he said.

Other families have come to a similar conclusion but for a different reason. They're worried that China will respond to Hong Kong's crisis by pushing for changes in the local school curriculum that make it more nationalistic, said Ms Ruth Benny, who runs Top Schools, a consulting firm.

For parents across the ideological spectrum, one common argument in favour international schools is that they may be better suited to prepare children for a potential life outside Hong Kong.

"These parents don't know what the future holds," said Ms Murphy, the ITS education consultant. "They want to prepare their kids for leaving the city and going abroad someday."