I was chatting with one of my colleagues the other day about schools in Hong Kong. He’d recently watched a documentary about one of Hong Kong’s most reputable secondary schools. He found the students’ – and staff’s – academic single-mindedness and general fervor impressive, but not in an entirely favorable way. He wondered if some of this intensity might be the product of transference – that is, the pious zeal of the some of the school’s staff and supporters who were members of religious orders seemed to spill over into their educational thought and work, shaping the school’s whole culture.
I think he’s on to something, but I think it goes far beyond the cultures of individual schools or their staffs. I believe Hong Kong culture in general imbues academic education with almost salvific power. As I mentioned in an article on choosing a kindergarten (forgive me for quoting myself):
To many Hong Kong parents, getting their children into the right kindergarten is simply essential. Why? Well, most obviously, the right kindergarten leads to the right primary school, which leads to the right secondary school, which leads to Harvard, Yale or Oxbridge (or maybe Hong Kong U or HKUST), which leads to . . . Nirvana, I guess, as once you push the argument this far forward, Hong Kong people's visions of their children's futures dissolve into soft-core money-and-status porn.
Education is a secular faith in Hong Kong. I don’t think that’s putting it too strongly.
The evidence is everywhere, from the parents driving their kindergarten-aged children like packhorses in order to build up their chances of getting into ‘name’ primary schools, to the deference shown to people who have attended – or, maybe better yet, whose children are attending – famous universities in the UK or USA.
But how did this belief develop? Part of it no doubt is attributable to the general historical/cultural valuation of education common to all Confucian societies. But in Hong Kong I think this broader value has been distilled and intensified due to peculiar historical circumstances.
Recent arrivals to Hong Kong may not realize how much the city and its culture have changed over the past 20-30 years, at least in educational terms. The Hong Kong of the 1970s and 1980s was still an immigrant-dominated, industrial society. Few people in Hong Kong had the chance to attend university, especially those who’d escaped the mainland.
Even in the early 1990s, Hong Kong had just two universities, Hong Kong University and Chinese University, and there were places for just 5% of graduating secondary school students each year. This meant a university degree had a disproportionately high value, especially as Hong Kong’s economy was growing non-stop, and making a rapid transition into a post-industrial, service-oriented model. The upcoming handover also triggered a period of ‘brain drain’, as many educated/professional people left Hong Kong for what they believed would be more secure futures overseas.
But things changed very fast in the 1990s. The Hong Kong Government panicked a bit, and decided to meet the perceived need for more educated brains by rapidly expanding the number of university places. New universities (e.g. UST and the Open University) were founded, and colleges and polytechnics were hastily upgraded into universities -- e.g. CityU, PolyU, Lingnan, and Baptist. In just a few years, the number of young university degree holders in Hong Kong exploded.
These eager university graduates were unlucky enough to emerge into the Hong Kong workforce just as the Asian financial crisis hit. And to make things even worse, many of the ‘brain drainers’ starting coming back to Hong Kong. Starting salaries for fresh graduates plummeted, and have not really recovered since.
So even as Hong Kong people pushed harder and harder to ‘succeed’ in education, especially to get hold of a university degree certificate, that very certificate is in some ways worth less than ever. This seems ironic, but of course it’s not. For the moment, higher education is still a necessary step on the road to financial/social success for most Hong Kong people, but since so many more can now realistically play the education success game, the stakes have been raised. It’s more important than ever to own the best ‘brand names’ you can.
But how long will even this last? First, the law of diminishing returns must be setting in for some people, especially those who are getting degrees from less desirable institutions. Will the parents of not-particularly-academically-inclined children continue to expend the enormous energy needed to push them on into university if the returns are so low?
And on a broader level, will the faith that ‘education means a good life’ ultimately erode, too? Will even those who have attended the right schools, achieved the high results, graduated from the excellent universities, and gotten the promising jobs be satisfied with their accomplishments?
It’s interesting to note that the number of Christians in Hong Kong is growing rapidly (and this is the case in other Confucian societies, too; see this article, for example), and that this growth has been particularly prominent amongst the better-educated, seemingly ‘successful’ people. Are they finding that education doesn’t quite equal salvation?
Perhaps the misplaced zeal of the religious schools ends up coming full circle after all. As they say in Christian circles, God works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform . . . .