The New Thing in Hong Kong’s Public Schools: White StudentsHONG KONG — For generations, Hong Kong’s prestigious international schools exclusively educated the children of wealthy Western expatriates. Today, placement in those schools is increasingly competitive and enrollment fees can exceed $1 million, making them some of the most expensive private schools in the world.
Recent changes to the city’s demography — prompted by Chinese politics and global markets — have driven up tuitions and resulted in a dramatic shift in the complexion of the city’s schools: An increasing number of ethnic Chinese students are now enrolled in international schools, and many more white students are occupying desks in Cantonese-language public schools.
“Private schools here are bloody expensive you know, and we have twins,” said James Runciman, a Briton, shop owner and father of two 6-year-olds who are set to begin second grade when school starts in September. “We just can’t afford to send our kids to these schools,” he said of the private international schools, which replicate the curriculums of Western countries, including the United States, Britain, Canada, and France.
As students return to school next month, there will be more white students in public schools than at any time in the city’s history, a telling indicator of how Hong Kong is both shaking off its colonial past, but also losing its draw as a magnet for the West’s wealthiest workers.
Last year there were 818 white students enrolled in the city’s public schools, according to the Hong Kong Education Bureau, which labels all Caucasian students “white” regardless of nationality or self-identification.
That number represents a small fraction of the overall public school population, but is indicative of a 44 percent increase from 2013, when only 556 white children attended public schools.
Robert Adamson, a professor of curriculum reform at the Education University of Hong Kong, said white students are increasingly attending public schools because they have been priced out of the city’s international schools by a newly rich immigrant constituency — mainland Chinese.
“International schools are in high demand from a new market — mainland China — and fees have increased considerably in recent years,” Professor Adamson said. “Thus, some traditional students are struggling to gain access and therefore look to local schools instead.”
Hong Kong, which reverted to Chinese control from Britain in 1997, has long been considered Asia’s pre-eminent financial hub. For decades, the world’s largest banks sent Western employees to the city on lucrative expatriate contracts that included money for housing and school tuition. But China’s meteoric rise to become the world’s second largest economy has meant an influx of mainland bankers to Hong Kong. Today, Mandarin is more likely to be heard spoken on a bank’s trading floor in Hong Kong than English.
Still, after a decline in expatriate whites following the 1997 handover, the city has seen a boost in its white population in the last decade. As China has opened its economy, many foreigners have come to Hong Kong looking to open — and work for — businesses eager to gain access to both China’s enormous markets and its inexpensive goods and services.
Between 2006 and 2016, the number of white residents increased by 60 percent, to 58,209 from 36,384. The majority of those whites were from English-speaking countries, including Britain, the United States and Australia. But as of 2006, 16 percent of whites in the city did not speak English at home, according to a government report that cited German, Italian and French-speaking residents. The government tracks the number of “whites” as an “ethnic minority” in the city, but its statistics do not break down by nationality.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, Western firms have been less willing to offer employees gold-plated relocation packages. And white workers in the city are no longer just bankers, but also small-business owners, middle managers at tech start-ups and baristas in coffee shops.
“Many low and middle-management people are not given the same packages when asked to move here,” said Jacqueline Cohen, an American who moderates a parents group on Facebook for expatriates with children in public schools.
But as expatriate packages have declined, prices at international schools have increased. Tuition at international schools can exceed $42,000 a year, excluding so-called debentures, which can exceed $1 million at the most prestigious and expensive schools.
Debentures are lump-sum loans that incoming students are required to pay to the school on top of regular fees. Large debentures often come with the promise of admission at some selective schools. The loans, used for capital projects at the school’s discretion, are sometimes reimbursed at graduation, but can also be bought and sold on a secondhand market. Some debentures, however, depreciate and are never returned.
Increasingly, many of the students at international schools are Hong Kong locals or the children of mainland Chinese parents. Foreign students once made up 100 percent of those schools’ populations. In 2017, however, foreigners accounted for less than 75 percent of students at primary international schools. Local students accounted for 21.6 percent of the student body, and “nonlocal Chinese,” a Hong Kong government designation for mainlanders, made up about 4 percent, according to the Education Bureau.
Hong Kong prides itself on being a diverse, international city but it is also largely segregated — not by law but by custom.
For many white parents, however, a Chinese-language education is an added reason to send their children to public schools and a chance for them to better integrate in the city.
“We consciously put our children into Cantonese schools,” said Ms. Cohen, whose children are 11 and 12. “They need to know the language to be a full member of Hong Kong.”
Katherine Ferreira, Mr. Runciman’s wife and the mother of twins, Vicente and Florencia, 6, also said learning Cantonese was an important factor in deciding to enroll her children in public schools.
“This is a different continent, so I saw it as a good chance to learn a new language,” said Ms. Ferreira, who is from Chile. “If they’re going to learn a language, now’s the moment.”
Primary public school students are required to use English and Cantonese in their regular classes and learn Mandarin too. High schools are typically designated either as English-language or Cantonese-language schools, with the other language and Mandarin being taught as electives.
Aiken Bridges, 13, said he is the only non-Chinese student at the English-language secondary school to which he will return in September. “My friends usually speak to me in English,” he said, adding that he was still nervous when speaking Cantonese outside class.
The vast majority of immigrant students enrolled in the city’s public schools are Asian, which the government’s ethnicity statistics do break down by country of origin. Last year there were 6,267 Pakistani students in public schools — the single largest immigrant bloc — nearly eight times the number of white students.
Unlike whites, non-Chinese Asian immigrants have attended the city’s public schools for decades. Some South Asian families complain of systemic racism, arguing that the schools fail to teach their children Cantonese, the predominant Chinese language spoken in the city, which is necessary for public sector employment.
(In addition to “white” and the nine most common Asian countries from which students trace their heritage, the Education Bureau also has demographic categories for “other Asian” and “others.”)
Hong Kong’s students often rank among the world’s top performers in math, reading and science, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That reputation, however, comes at a cost. Many students say the schools are high-pressure environments in which rote learning is stressed over critical thinking.
Some experts attribute a rise in teenage suicide to the stress and rigor of school.
About 35 students killed themselves in 2017, according to Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong, a nonprofit anti-suicide organization, a 50 percent increase over 2016. More than 93 percent of high school students reported that school led to anxiety, according to the group.
Western parents are often shocked by the long hours spent at school and the mountains of homework students in Hong Kong are expected to complete. In many cases, expatriate parents who send their children to public elementary schools use the money they have saved to pay for a private or international high school once classes get harder.
“I chose my children’s mental and physical health over their results when they got to primary two,” said Ms. Cohen, the American who moderates the “Cantonese School Parents Group” on Facebook. “After school and their homework tutorial, they will have the time for relaxation and a balanced life.”