Learning, the hard way

Why Hong Kong and mainland China are scoring poorly on cross-border schooling

The sun was oppressive that first day of June 2013. Outside a primary school in Hong Kong’s northernmost district bordering mainland China, hundreds of parents waited in a long queue with umbrellas and paper fans in hand.

An air of anxiety hovered in the heat.

It wasn’t long before a young mother in a greyish green baseball cap staggered out of the school. She slouched down in the middle of the pavement and broke into tears, her face buried in her palms and her black handbag slumping to the ground.

The announcement of school placements elicited anguish from some mothers who faced a difficult path to get their children educated. Photos: Nora Tam

The school, on Choi Yuen Road in Sheung Shui, was the centre where parents living in North District would learn the results of their children’s primary school placement. Naturally, they all wanted their children to attend school within the district.

But the mother had just learned that her six-year-old son was allocated to a school in Tai Po district – more than half an hour away by train – instead of a place at a school just five minutes’ walk from home.

Now she would have to abandon her plan of securing a job and instead tend to her son’s daily journeys, she said tearfully. Her truck driver husband would have to continue to be the family’s sole breadwinner.

The elated faces of some parents from the mainland told another story. Their Hong Kong-born children were allocated to schools in North District – the best possible result given the district’s proximity to their home in Shenzhen over the border.

Yu Lai-ping, who came to the school to find out about her own daughter’s allocation result, said she “totally understood” the despondent mother’s feeling. Yu’s daughter was also assigned a school in distant Tai Po.

“We are all Hong Kong taxpayers, while the mainland parents don’t pay any taxes,” Yu added. “Why do our children have to travel to schools so far away every day while theirs get places in schools near our home?”

"Why do our children have to travel to schools so far away every day while theirs get places in schools near our home?"– Yu Lai-ping, mother

Over 202,000 children were born in Hong Kong to mainland parents between 2001 and 2012, before the government imposed a ban prohibiting all local public and private hospitals from taking in mainland women to give birth.

These children automatically become Hong Kong permanent residents and add to the strain on the city’s small and crowded education system. Just last week, almost 30,000 of them returned to schools in the city after the Christmas break.

The situation is expected to last until 2030, when the last batch of babies born to mainland women before the ban are due to graduate from secondary school and enter tertiary institutions.

The dramatic rise in children coming to the city for their education from across the border not only forces competition for places, but also threatens local schools’ sustainable development..

In 2015 these students were among nearly 25,000 who made the daily trip across the border to get to school; now the number has risen to more than 28,000 and is set to increase further.

For cross-border pupils, waking up before dawn and travelling daily for hours from Shenzhen to Hong Kong is torturous. But they have no other option because, born in Hong Kong, they do not have a household registration on the mainland and thus cannot enrol in public schools there. Mainland private schools are often too expensive.

Politicians, advocates and scholars have suggested improvements to the status quo. The options: have Hong Kong authorities subsidise study on the mainland; get mainland authorities to allow these children to get household registration there and give up their Hong Kong permanent residency or get them to accept the children into the public education system there.

Opponents, however, say mainland parents need to take responsibility for their own decision to give birth in Hong Kong and that local taxpayers should not foot the bill for their education in the city.

The beginning

Everything started in 2001 over a three-year-old boy. Chong Fung-yuen was then a kindergartener and oblivious to the controversy that had been brewing around him and the long shadow the episode was about to cast.

Held in the arms of his father Chong Kei-yim in 1999, Chong Fung-yuen, 2, was granted the right of abode in a landmark case. His entry to Hong Kong was the tip of the iceberg. Photo: David Wong

Chong was born in September 1997 in Hong Kong to a mainland couple living in the coastal city of Shanwei, Guangdong province. At the time of his birth, his parents were visiting his paternal grandfather, who was a permanent Hong Kong resident.

After the government rejected Chong’s application for permanent residency, his grandfather, on behalf of the boy, brought the director of immigration to court in 1999. He argued the rejection ran foul of Article 24 of the Basic Law , which states that permanent residents of Hong Kong include “Chinese citizens born in Hong Kong before or after the establishment” of the special administrative region.

Both the Court of First Instance and the Court of Appeal ruled in Chong’s favour, ignoring a previous Beijing “interpretation” of the article. The interpretation had effectively restricted the provision to persons whose “father or mother was settled or had the right of abode in Hong Kong” at the time of the birth or after, which would have ruled out Chong.

On July 20, 2001, five judges of the Court of Final Appeal unanimously upheld the ruling, agreeing that Beijing’s interpretation of the article did not apply to the case.

“The meaning of the provision is not ambiguous, that is, it is not reasonably capable of sustaining competing alternative interpretations,” then chief justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang wrote in the ruling.

Chong Fung-yuen’s grandfather, Chong Yiu-shing (left), and father Chong Kei-yim leave the Court of Final Appeal during a case to decide whether the young boy could get right of abode in Hong Kong. Photo: Garrige Ho

Chong’s family was overjoyed. His grandfather, who did not attend the hearing due to work, was happily planning a celebratory meal with the boy after hearing the news.

The 47-year-old said at the time he did not believe the ruling would trigger a wave of mainlanders coming to Hong Kong to give birth to gain right of abode.

“Unlike our case, if the children don’t have grandparents or any relatives in Hong Kong, their parents definitely won’t come here to give birth,” he said.

He was wrong.

In the decade following the ruling, the number of children born in the city to solely mainland parents leapt by a factor of 58 – from 620 in 2001 to 35,736 in 2011.

Over the same period, the number of babies born to local mothers only rose by 27 per cent to 51,469.

Chief Justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang, arriving at the Court of Final Appeal in July 2002. The court denied a plea to allow thousands of mainland Chinese residents to live in Hong Kong. Photo: Robert Ng
In 2012 births in Hong Kong to mainland parents like this couple at St Teresa’s Hospital in Kowloon peaked at nearly 44,000. Photo: Sam Tsang

The prices mainland parents needed to pay to give birth in the city were comparatively low, ranging from HK$39,000 to HK$48,000 in public hospitals. In private hospitals, the prices ranged from about HK$10,000 to well over HK$100,000.

Under the central government’s one-child policy at the time, many mainland parents made the trek to Hong Kong to have a second child. Others came for a variety of reasons, such as the city’s education system, or the perceived benefits of holding a Hong Kong passport.

Yu Dejiang, a father from Beijing, had his son born in Hong Kong in 2011. Yu said he wanted his child to experience a different social and cultural environment.

“I really longed for Hong Kong’s system,” the electronic products businessman explained. He visited the city in 2008 for an exhibition. “When I was crossing the road one day, a Mercedes-Benz made way for me. This might seem very normal to Hongkongers, but to me, a mainlander, it was really impressive.”

Such admiration, however, might have turned out to be a bane for one of the world’s most densely populated cities.

Crushing pressure

Tens of thousands of students make the journey to a Hong Kong school from Shenzhen, across the border in mainland China.

Journey times differ from about 16 minutes to over an hour from the Hong Kong side of the border to their school district.

New Territories districts have borne the most students given the shorter distances from the border, but other districts further south have begun to take in more students.

The sheer number of mainlanders coming to have children here caused a shortage in basic necessities such as maternity ward beds and vaccines, leaving local parents strapped for items they were entitled to have as taxpayers.

Under pressure from hundreds of thousands of angry Hong Kong parents, local authorities in 2012 announced that all public and private hospitals would stop accepting reservations from pregnant mainland women from the following year. So began the city’s “zero quota” policy.

Yet the consequences continued to be felt.

Many of these children returned to Hong Kong for school as early as kindergarten age. Last school year, more than 28,000 were enrolled.

Many parents chose to let their children cross the border daily because they found it difficult to find affordable schools on the mainland. Their children, lacking a household registration, could not gain entry to the mainland’s free public education system.

Private school tuition fees on the mainland often range from around 10,000 yuan (HK$11,687) a year to well over 100,000 yuan.

In 2013, 32 per cent of some 28,000 children joining the Primary One allocation failed to be assigned a place at any of their three most preferred schools listed on their application forms. The failure rate was higher than that of any of the previous 11 years.

North District, which encompasses Sheung Shui, Fanling and Sha Tau Kok, saw about 2,450 children – including 1,230 living on the mainland – competing for just 1,300 places.

About 200 children living in the district, or one in five, were assigned to other, more distant areas, whereas just five years ago not a single student encountered such a fate.

School places in the district were some of the most sought-after by mainland parents because the area is the closest to all six border control points except for Shenzhen Bay Port, which is closest to Yuen Long and Tuen Mun. Those two districts faced similar issues.

To ease parents’ anger and relieve some of the burden the district faced, local authorities in 2013 introduced a primary school allocation method of having 122 schools from eight districts across Hong Kong pooling 3,000 places to form a single school catchment area, or school net, specifically for cross-border children.

As local children would not be assigned any of the places within the cross-border net, local parents would not have to compete with their mainland counterparts.

Special counters had to be set up for the large numbers of students crossing the border from Shenzhen. Photo: Felix Wong

But the influx of cross-border children continues to stretch local schools: many that are popular with mainland parents need to open extra classes to accommodate growing student intake. These schools will see a sudden dip in enrolment and thus redundant classes and teachers after next year and 2024, the years when the last wave of Hong Kong-born children to mainland parents are expected to enter primary and secondary schools.

Tuen Mun’s 36 primary schools contribute 24 per cent of first-year places to the special school net – the highest of any district – and principals there are worried.

Schools that only had two or three first-year classes back in 2011 now must open six or seven such classes to keep pace. To accommodate the sudden expansion, they need to use reserved classrooms and even convert rooms built for other purposes into classrooms.

For every two extra classes, three new teachers are required. If after the cross-border influx the new student intake plummets to the previous level, these additional teachers might have to be let go and the extra classes disbanded.

The same spike and slump will happen at the other seven districts in the net.

Shum Yiu-kwong, chairman of Tuen Mun District Primary School Heads Association, said the group started to collect enrolment data from kindergartens in the district this school year as the last wave of cross-border pupils before the 2012 ban had already entered kindergartens in the previous school year.

"Many primary schools were shut down or lost resources many years ago [due to low birth rate before the cross-border children influx] and we still have that lingering fear."– Shum Yiu-kwong, Tuen Mun District Primary School Heads Association chairman.

If enrolment in a current school year is substantially lower than before, the district could face the risk of closure. The Education Bureau will only have the latest first-year kindergarten numbers this summer, at the end of the school year.

“Many primary schools were shut down or lost resources many years ago [due to low birth rate before the cross-border children influx] and we still have that lingering fear,” he said. “We’re worried the same thing may happen again.”

Even after the zero quota policy, around 800 babies have been born annually in Hong Kong to mainland mothers who gatecrash local hospitals near the time of birth. The phenomenon could exact a toll on Hong Kong’s social services over the long term.

Pushing the boundaries

Although the net has protected local parents from competition, cross-border children and their parents caught in it have faced a struggle. Some districts in the net such as Tung Chung, Tsing Yi, Wong Tai Sin and Ma On Shan were previously never an option for mainland parents as the areas are far from the border.

This means cross-border children who previously might get a place in North District are now more likely to be demoted to areas farther away, and, subsequently, have to endure travelling hours to schools.

A typical day for a cross-border student

Sleep Home Travel School

Lin Yihua lives near the Man Kam To border control point closest to North District, but her daughter was allocated to CCC Hoh Fuk Tong Primary School in Tuen Mun in 2014, which is almost two hours from home by bus.

She gave up the place and tried to apply for one of the few remaining places in North District after allocation, but she failed to a win a spot. Her daughter now studies at a private school in Shenzhen using a Hong Kong curriculum.

“We really wanted her to study in Hong Kong, but it would have been too difficult for her to wake up so early every day to go to school,” Lin said.

"We really wanted her to study in Hong Kong, but it would have been too difficult for her to wake up so early every day to go to school."– Lin Yihua, mother

Chen Xi’s eight-year-old son, however, has been crossing the border from his home near Futian border control point to Tai Po Old Market Public School (Plover Cove) for two years.

“It’s very tough for him,” she said. “He has to get up before 6am every day and he doesn’t come back until around 6 or 7pm. He often starts to feel sleepy at 8pm, but he still has to finish his homework.”

Tsuen Wan Trade Association Primary School in Tsing Yi this year admitted 20 cross-border pupils living near Man Kam To. On their first day of school in September, the pupils woke up at 6am to take the school bus, which reached the border control point at around 7am.

But crossing the border turned out to be hectic due to the overwhelming number of pupils crossing the border there, and it took an hour for every pupil to clear the control point.

Cross-border students were visibly tired on their first day at Tsuen Wan Trade Association Primary School in Tsing Yi last September. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

“It was really crowded and chaotic,” school principal Chow Kim-ho said. He arrived at the control point at around 6am to observe the situation.

The bus did not arrive at the school until 10.15am, by which time the six-year-olds had spent over four hours on the road. All of them looked exhausted.

“I am very sleepy,” a pupil said. “I woke up very early this morning. We have come from very far away.”

After they entered their classrooms and sat down, some could not help yawning and rested on their desks using their arms to cushion their heads.

A new hope? Shenzhen’s Oriental School for Hongkongese Students offers options for those who don’t get a place in a school across the border. Photo: Edward Wong

Commuter says no

Across the border in Shenzhen, near the city’s Bao’an International Airport, stands Shenzhen Oriental School for Hongkongese Students, a private school offering classes only for Hong Kong-born children who are not accepted by the city’s public education system.

The classes adopt Hong Kong’s curriculum and textbooks, and students can participate in Hong Kong’s secondary school allocation system or the Diploma of Secondary Education examination.

Tuition is 32,000 yuan (HK$36,186) a year for primary classes and 35,000 yuan for secondary classes.

The sprawling 15-hectare boarding school, which provides dormitories and canteens, also includes local, international, Macau and Taiwan branches.

In the previous academic year, 11 schools in Shenzhen including Oriental offered such classes for Hong Kong children providing 3,100 places.

Given that some 28,000 pupils cross the border for their education every day, the schools have a potentially large market for expansion. But growth has stagnated amid a lukewarm reception from targeted parents.

Lin Yihua, whose Hong Kong-born daughter is now studying at one of the 11 schools, said she still preferred the teaching approach at Hong Kong schools and had been seeking opportunities to transfer the girl back over the border.

Lin claimed her daughter’s school hired mainland instructors who taught many subjects in Putonghua and simplified Chinese characters. She feared the eight-year-old would be disconnected from Hong Kong, where the language of instruction is Cantonese and traditional Chinese characters are used.

The Shenzhen school, run by principal Qiu Heping, has facilities to cater to many of the students’ needs yet parents have voiced discontent, such as teaching in Putonghua and simplified characters instead of Cantonese and traditional characters in some subjects. Photos: Edward Wong

“Hong Kong schools’ teaching is far better in many ways,” Lin said. “Teachers [in Shenzhen] will not follow up on students’ homework and will not write comments on each student’s homework. They are less attentive.

“[In Shenzhen], teachers give orders and students follow, but in Hong Kong, teachers and even the principal are like friends with the students. The kids can go to their offices at any time to chat with them.”

She added that it would be difficult for her and her husband to afford private education for their daughter from now to university.

Oriental principal Qiu Heping said the school hired four Hong Kong teachers six years ago, but each stayed only a year. He said the school could not afford Hong Kong teachers, which is also the chief reason schools like Oriental hired mainland teachers to teach Hong Kong classes.

Qiu said Oriental paid a Hong Kong teacher 44,000 to 50,000 yuan a month, while a mainland teacher was only paid 5,000 to 6,000 yuan.

For nearly 500 Shenzhen students seeking something like a Hong Kong education, the border is no longer a barrier. The Shenzhen Oriental School for Hongkongese Students is one of 11 schools offering courses designed to fit the Hong Kong syllabus, but it’s not the same as the real thing.

Liu Cheung-hin, founding principal of Luohu School for Hong Kong Children, said mainland teachers were capable of teaching all subjects, especially Chinese and mathematics, because mainland schools required higher levels of knowledge and skills in these two subjects than schools in many other countries did.

And while Liu acknowledged that mainland teachers’ spoken English was not as good as that of Hong Kong teachers’, he said their written English was highly competent.

Liu confirmed his school used Putonghua and simplified characters to teach Chinese, maths and English and used Cantonese and traditional characters to teach other subjects such as health education and general knowledge.

“We hope our children can develop their careers around the world, not just in Hong Kong,” he said. “That’s why we need English, Putonghua and simplified characters.”

Who should take responsibility?

Qiu conceded that high fees charged by schools similar to Oriental had deterred some families. He said the school, with a total number of 450 Hong Kong children, had seen enrolment plunge, with only about 70 new students admitted last school year compared with 90 in the previous year.

“These children are all Hong Kong residents,” he said. “Why can they enjoy 12 years of free education in Hong Kong, but in Shenzhen they can’t benefit from it?”

"Why can they enjoy 12 years of free education in Hong Kong, but in Shenzhen they can’t benefit from it?"– Qiu Heping, principal

He called on Hong Kong authorities to subsidise local children’s education in Shenzhen or build government-subsidised schools in Shenzhen.

“This will not only help Hong Kong children whose parents are from the mainland, but also those whose parents are from Hong Kong,” he said. “More and more Hongkongers are moving to Shenzhen to live, work or invest.”

According to the central government’s sixth national population census in 2010, there were nearly 235,000 Hongkongers residing on the mainland, with the majority clustering in Guangdong, Shanghai, Fujian province, and Beijing.

The Shanghai Hong Kong Association, established by Hongkongers residing in Shanghai, conducted a survey of Hong Kong children’s education in the megacity from January to February. According to Hong Kong’s trade office in Shanghai, 4,396 Hong Kong students studied in primary and secondary schools and universities there in 2015.

It also found that 70 per cent of 205 surveyed parents said high tuition was the biggest difficulty they encountered when choosing schools for their children, while 56 per cent hoped the schools could offer classes that would enable their children to take part in Hong Kong’s public exams.

Professor Paul Yip Siu-fai. Photo: Nora Tam

But Professor Paul Yip Siu-fai of the department of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong argued that mainland parents needed to be responsible for their decision to have children in Hong Kong. He said it would not be easy for Hong Kong authorities to fund schools on the mainland when it already weathered heavy criticism for not devoting more resources to improve local education.

At a time when issues touching on the mainland-Hong Kong relationship have become increasingly thorny, it would be next to impossible for such a proposal to pass the Legislative Council, Yip added.

“Mainland parents need to understand that it was their decision to come to Hong Kong to give birth,” he said. “The Hong Kong government did not invite them, and they have the responsibility to handle issues arising from their decision, with the best interest of their children in mind.”

"Mainland parents need to understand that it was their decision to come to Hong Kong to give birth"– Paul Yip Siu-fai, HKU

Liu Cheung-hin, founding principal of Luohu School for HK Children, also believed schools funded by Hong Kong authorities on the mainland were a non-starter. Municipal governments would not allow such schools given that Hong Kong would also not agree to let mainland administrators interfere in their schools funded by taxpayer dollars.

Students exercising in the playground of Luohu School For Hong Kong Children in Shenzhen. Photo: Edward Wong

“In an extreme case, if there were a fire in the school, who would take responsibility? Hong Kong or Shenzhen?” he asked.

An Education Bureau spokesman said it was government policy that public subsidies provided to schools were restricted to those within Hong Kong.

“The suggestion of providing subsidies for Hong Kong children to study in schools on the mainland involves complicated issues and far-reaching implications,” the spokesman said.

He explained the number of cross-border students was expected to peak in two to three years in light of the zero-quota policy, followed by a gradual decline.

The bureau described the surge in cross-border demand for primary school places as “a transient phenomenon” and said the government had no plan at present to build schools offering a Hong Kong curriculum on the mainland.

The way ahead

A pupil at Luohu School for Hong Kong Students in 2006 takes a moment to have fun with a sticker, which reads “award” in simplified Chinese. Photo: Dickson Lee

Although the number of cross-border pupils is likely to decline after 2018 when the last batch enters primary school, how large an influx the city will see next year remains unknown as the government does not have an official projection. Education Bureau officials have previously cited uncertainties such as family preferences and policy adjustments for not having a figure.

Yip of HKU warned such a lack of certainty had made it difficult for local schools to prepare for the wave.

A look at past admission figures suggests that about 15 per cent of babies born in Hong Kong to mainland parents may return to the city when they reach school age, meaning by next year some 31,000 pupils could be crossing the border every day – a 10 per cent uptick from last year’s number.

Shenzhen authorities made an even bolder projection, estimating there would be between 65,000 and 85,000 cross-border pupils by 2018.

In 2015, it was reported that Shenzhen was considering allowing children with permanent Hong Kong residency to give up their status and gain a mainland household registration, but there have been no updates about the possibility.

During the plenary sessions of the Shenzhen People’s Congress and the Shenzhen committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in February last year, local CPPCC member Chen Yiru submitted a motion calling on local authorities to allow Hong Kong-born children of mainland parents access to free education in Shenzhen.

"They will be ambassadors of the two cities. If they find it difficult to fit in both cities, in the long run, it may become a social problem."– Chen Yiru, CPPCC member

Chen said she was still waiting for a response from the government and believed this was the best option to address the issue.

“These children’s unique situation is caused by both Shenzhen and Hong Kong authorities,” she said. “Both governments have a responsibility to take care of them. But so far, they have failed to do so.”

“It is very likely that these children will grow up, live and work in the two places,” she added. “They will be ambassadors of the two cities. If they find it difficult to fit in both cities, in the long run, this may become a social problem.”

Reporter: Shirley Zhao

Editors: Bong Miquiabas, Olga Wong

Web design and interactives: Castiel Ho, Hoi Wong, Dan Moss

Video: Lea Li, Vicky Feng, Thomas Yau, Annie Lau