Hong Kong Administration Seeks Closer China Ties

Hong Kong’s five-month-old administration, despite some highly publicized rear guard action over national loyalty introduction into the public schools, is nonetheless moving fast to insinuate more Beijing-inspired ideas.

Into the process, the Leung administration is beginning to undermine some of the territory’s cherished internationalism. It is also planning a propaganda onslaught that aims not so much to inform citizens of the facts of official policies and procedures but to use public funds as a political tool to push unpopular policies.

Hard on the heels of instituting a special 15 percent tax on non-resident purchases of residential property, itself an unprecedented departure from Hong Kong’s basic principles of taxation, the administration is now hinting that it will end a subsidy given to the English Schools Foundation (ESF). This is a semi-autonomous body that runs English-language schools catering both to expatriates and local families who want an English-language education. The new Education minister, Eddie Ng Hak-kim, takes the view that only schools adhering to the government’s own Chinese/Cantonese based curriculum should be entitled to subsidies.

This appears quite blatant, race-tinted discrimination against a significant minority of the population who pay taxes to the government. Already the subsidy to the ESF is far less than the amount per pupil that the government spends on its own schools, and on the subsidies it gives to the independent, mostly church-related, elite schools which mainly cater to middle and upper income groups. These supplement the subsidy with their own fees.

Education is already an issue for many foreign businesses in the territory due to lack of space at ESF schools and even at most of the international schools, which are not subsidized, at least by the local government, and charge very high fees. Foreign chambers of commerce now cite education as second only to pollution as a deterrent to basing staff in Hong Kong. The situation would be even worse were the subsidy to be removed, as many requiring English language educations would be unable to afford the higher fees. The foreigners would leave while local people would be forced back to subsidized schools, adding to government funding costs.

The desire to use a subsidy which should be evenly distributed to force the Hong Kong government’s curriculum down all throats reflects two dangerous attitudes of an administration eager to show patriotism and a minister with the tunnel vision of one who has spent years being a yes-man on government appointed boards.

First is a barely-concealed antagonism to expatriates generally, and to Hong Kong’s own, mostly-Asian minorities who prefer an English language education. Second is a wish to take aim at the many local Chinese families who have voted with their feet and sent their kids to ESF schools, which mostly follow the International Baccalaureate, rather than those following the HK government’s curriculum.

There is a wide variety of schools outside the local and ESF systems – various international schools catering to Koreans, Japanese, French etc – but several of these are fortunate to have overseas funding. Meanwhile in an effort to prove it is in internationally minded, the government has handed out big land grants to offshoots of prestige foreign schools – for example, Harrow School of the UK. But these are very expensive and quite beyond the means of most local expatriate residents, let alone of local Chinese and minorities.

It has been suggested that all children of Hong Kong residents should get the same level of outlay, whether attending government or other schools. This would not only be equitable but provide parents with greater choice. However simplicity does not appeal to bureaucracies which like the power to make decisions, discriminate between groups, and respond to political pressures. Nor does it suit Hong Kong’s self-appointed Chinese patriots who want as little foreign influence on the education of the territory’s children as possible. Even imported native teachers of English have been under fire from some leftist circles for promoting alien ideas. So much for Hong Kong as Asian’s World City.

The minister is the very same one who began his ministerial career in July attempting to thrust a plan for compulsory National Education course into the local curriculum. That attracted so much opposition that it was shelved. The ESF question affects far fewer people so there will not be the same outcry. But it is part of the same thinking which seeks to make Hong Kong less distinctive, its system less different from that of the mainland.

Much the same impetus lies behind the government’s announced desire to beef up the Central Policy Unit. This once low key office has been responsible for research into medium and longer term issues which would require policy decision, and taking a broad view of issues which spread over various departments. The proposal to greatly increase its budget and staff might not be so troubling if it were not for the avowed intention of its head to use it as a propaganda machine to promote government policies aggressively. The government already has a large network of information officers attached to departments but providing information is apparently not enough. That favorite word of Communist manuals, propaganda, is needed.

This new approach may not be a surprise given that the head of the CPU, Shiu Sin-por, has long been a Beijing mouthpiece, most notably when running the so-called One Country Two Systems Research Institute which provides a quasi-academic gloss to the push to emphasize One Country over Two Systems.

Previous administrations in Hong Kong have been rightly accused of being too close to big business, particularly the property giants who now control many other sectors. But judged by the likes of Ng and Shiu, as well as other ministers new and old, the C.Y. Leung administration is so far overweight with bureaucrats and patriotic camp followers, few connections to local business and almost none to the foreign business without which Hong Kong ceases to be more than an a mid-sized Chinese coastal city.