What happens when you graduate in Hong Kong - and can't speak Chinese?

When Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the government decreed that students be taught in Chinese, not English. But thousands of minorities were suddenly left in the lurch, say activists.

Kin Cheung/AP
Thousands of protesters gather outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Friday, Sept. 7. Parents, teachers and pupils along with activists in the former British colony continued their protest against the government's plan to introduce a new subject 'Moral and National Education' into a new curriculum, starting from new school year.

Hong Kong bills itself as one of Asia’s most diverse cities and is home to a sizable population of non-ethnic Chinese minorities, but many of them educated at local public schools are unable to read and speak Chinese. 

In the 15 years since reverting to Chinese sovereignty, South Asian students here have been given the short end of the stick by the city’s public education system, activists say, charging that segregation and poor schooling options are keeping these students from getting ahead. 

Shortly after one-and-a-half centuries of British colonial rule ended in 1997, the local government decreed that students be taught in Cantonese instead of English. This abrupt switch has since cost tens of thousands of Chinese-illiterate minority students not just their place in mainstream public schools, but also a fair shake in society, say their parents and advocates. 

"The current education policies may have a disproportionate, negative impact on certain ethnic groups in Hong Kong,” says Kelley Loper, a University of Hong Kong assistant law professor who directs its human rights program and has researched education issues facing ethnic minorities.

The story of Roy Umar Aftab, a Hong Kong-born Pakistani, is echoed across the city. By the time he was seven, Mr. Aftab says he had been turned away from so many local Chinese schools that he had no choice but to enroll in one of the city’s “designated schools” for minorities, where classes are taught in English and student bodies are overwhelmingly South Asians.

Like Aftab, most Hong Kong-born children of Indian, Nepalese, and Pakistani descent have been relegated to segregated schools. They are often not taught adequate Chinese to secure a foothold in the city’s ever-more sinicized economy. Back when Hong Kong was a British colony, South Asians could compete for both private sector and government jobs with only English; now they are all but shut out unless they read and write Chinese proficiently.

While history and geopolitics play some role in their dilemma, critics charge that the government needs to step up and agree on a Chinese as a Second Language curriculum.

“True that colonialism was one form of discrimination, but neglect is a far worse form of discrimination. Hong Kong's education officials really have forgotten about them," says Fermi Wong, executive director of Unison, one of the city's most active minority rights groups. "What we're seeing is de facto discrimination."

'That doesn't constitute discrimination'

The city’s education bureau disagrees: “Since the parents choose to send their children to the designated schools, that doesn’t constitute discrimination. And we believe our Chinese curriculum is suitable for all learners,” says a spokesperson.

According to government figures, more than one-third of the city's nearly 40,000 minority children, mostly from working class families, enroll in the designated schools only because they are failing in a Cantonese teaching environment.

At the designated schools, students learn Chinese only up to about the third grade-equivalent level because such schools are equipped to prepare the students to take only public exams administered by Britain, which has lower standards of Chinese fluency. As it is, only one in five South Asians public high school graduates read and write Chinese; most are relegated to low-skill jobs or unemployment.

Legal action?

Seeking to end what they see as long-standing inequity, both Unison and the city's Equal Opportunities Commission say they may take legal action if education officials don't make an effort soon to design a curriculum appropriate for the minorities – one that would help them achieve proficiency comparable to that of their Chinese peers.

Yusuf Yu, former principal of a designated school, spent most of his career contending with the lack of appropriate curricula. Until he retired two months ago, he had to improvise in order to help minority students master more advanced Chinese. Minorities account for more than 90 percent of the school’s population of 500.

“Right now it's up to the individual principals to decide how far the students get to go with their Chinese learning,” says Mr. Yu. “The victims ultimately are the students.” 

Determined not to be a victim

Although Aftab, now 22, aced Chinese at his designated school, he couldn’t even decipher street signs in Chinese. Determined not to be a victim of the city’s segregated education system, he learned to speak Cantonese fluently from TV and friends at the public housing development where he grew up. 

Having worked as Cantonese-Urdu interpreter, Aftab recently joined the police department as a community liaison. This position may give him a shot at joining the force, like the fathers and grandfathers of some of his peers. Indeed, many South Asians in the city descend from those brought in by the British circa 1850 to form the fledgling colony’s first police force.

Aftab and his family are pooling their resources to make sure his niece learns to read and write Chinese proficiently. They say they don’t count on the government to give minorities a fair chance at achieving Chinese literacy.

While Aftab has managed to beat the odds, scholars say full Chinese proficiency for ethnic minorities should be the norm rather than the exception.

"Chinese language learning at publicly funded schools should ensure that all students can achieve a standard that allows for equal access to opportunities in all areas of life," says Ms. Loper. 

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