Edward Vickers on the History of Education in Hong Kong


This week we have Dr. Edward Vickers of Kyushu University reflecting on the History of Education in Hong Kong. 

The History of Education in Hong Kong – a bibliographical note
by Edward Vickers

The politics of education in Hong Kong has attracted headlines in recent years, especially since the 2012 controversy over plans to introduce a new Moral and National Education school subject. The resulting furore launched the political careers of several student activists who went on to lead the 2014 ‘Umbrella Movement’. But intense public disputes over educational issues are nothing new in Hong Kong. Education has long been a site of tension and conflict between advocates of competing visions of Hong Kong’s identity. At the same time, schooling has had a crucial role to play in shaping local political consciousness – as members of the current generation of student activists have themselves testified.

Despite education’s significance for Hong Kong’s social and political development, historical research in this area has been relatively sparse. The pioneer in this field was the late Tony Sweeting, for thirty years a member of the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Education. His 1993 monograph, A Phoenix Transformed, analyzed the colony’s post-war educational development, tracing the halting progress from classic colonial laissez faire (i.e. minimal provision) in the 1940s to the universalisation of primary and junior secondary schooling by the 1970s. This book was accompanied by two large annotated collections of educational documents dealing respectively with the pre- and post-1941 eras (1990; 2004).

Sweeting showed how the transformation of the schooling system, and its relationship with the colonial government, paralleled Hong Kong’s own transition from a low-maintenance colonial trading post (pre-1941) to a semi-autonomous city-state (by the 1970s). The main determinant of that transformation was the huge influx of refugees from the mainland during and after the Chinese Civil War of the late 1940s. Their permanent settlement broke the pattern of (largely male) transient labour migration up to the 1930s, and facilitated Hong Kong’s rapid emergence as a manufacturing hub largely cut off from its Chinese hinterland. All this implied new demands for provision of schooling, as well as different approaches to managing the system and designing curricular content. In his monograph Hegemonies Compared (2002), Ting-hong Wong adopts a different slant on the educational history of roughly the same period, focusing on the interactions of the colonial (and post-colonial) state and the Chinese-medium private schools sector. Wong compares Hong Kong with Singapore – another largely Chinese-populated British colonial outpost, but more ethnically plural and exhibiting a very different post-war political trajectory.

While Sweeting took the Japanese occupation (1942-45) as the key rupture in local educational history, research in this area has mostly been conducted in the shadow of another political transition: the colony’s transition to Chinese rule. For this reason, much work has focused on the relationship between schooling and political socialisation. Paul Morris has investigated the contemporary history and politics of the school curriculum, notably in a 1995 monograph, The Hong Kong School Curriculum (revised and republished in collaboration with Bob Adamson, 2010). Much of his work has dealt with the curricula for citizenship/civics (e.g. 1991) and related subjects (Morris, McClelland and Wong 1997).

A crucial feature of the school curriculum, and one that remains highly charged politically, is the issue of language. Throughout the post-war period, the majority of secondary schools claimed to offer ‘English-medium’ instruction – in response to parental demand rather than colonial diktat. The history of the role of English has witnessed controversy between scholars who emphasise the intrinsically ‘colonial’ nature of the language in the Hong Kong context (e.g. Pennycook 1998), and others who stress the significance of local agency in long-running debates over medium of instruction (Sweeting and Vickers 2007). Far from being resolved with the departure of the British in 1997, these debates have taken on a new dimension with the growing use of Putonghua (Mandarin) for teaching Chinese language and literature at primary level.

While calls from officials and pro-Beijing elements for schooling to promote patriotism have intensified since 1997 (see Vickers 2011) – sparking resistance amongst the very youngsters at whom ‘national education’ is aimed – the local school curriculum has long embodied a strongly chauvinistic vision of Chineseness. Indeed, post-war Hong Kong, like Taiwan, served as a refuge for scholars exiled from Mao’s China precisely because of their attachment to a traditionalist vision of ‘Chineseness’. During the 1950s, some of these were co-opted by the colonial authorities to help localise curricula for Chinese language, literature and history. These subjects had previously been taught using textbooks produced on the mainland, but the Communist (CCP)-Kuomintang (KMT) Civil War had led to the local circulation of rival texts – all highly politicised and infused with anti-colonial nationalism. With street fighting in Hong Kong between rival KMT and CCP supporters, and British jitters concerning Communist infiltration, the colonial authorities sought to ‘depoliticise’ the curricula for these ‘Chinese subjects’. This story, and its implications for the vision of ‘Chineseness’ taught to generations of Hongkongers, is recounted in a fascinating article by Bernard Luk (1991).

By the 1970s, the culturally chauvinist but politically neutered agenda of the ‘Chinese subjects’ was increasingly in tension with an ostensibly liberal ethos animating other parts of the curriculum. Although the implications of ‘colonialism’ for its educational development have been (and remain) profound and far-reaching, late twentieth-century Hong Kong was far from being a typical colony (if such a thing ever existed). Rather than promoting popular identification with some anachronistic, pseudo-imperial ideal of global Britishness, the colonial authorities (out of eminently self-interested motives) sought to reinforce an apolitical sense of cultural Chineseness. However, simply slapping the ‘colonial’ label on the pre-1997 curriculum has been a favoured tactic of elements keen to legitimate the post-1997 ‘national education’ drive.

The aim of investigating the implications of ‘colonialism’ for Hong Kong’s school curriculum animated the early research of Edward Vickers (the present author) from the late 1990s. Vickers had taught in a local secondary school, and observed first-hand the tensions noted above. His doctoral thesis, the basis of his monograph In Search of An Identity (2003 / 2005), analysed how and why official conceptions of History as a school subject had changed since the 1960s. Benefitting from access to an array of official documents, supplemented by interviews with curriculum developers past and present, Vickers discussed the implications for curricular change of Hong Kong’s post-1960s political, cultural and social transformation. The central theme of his study related to the pressures on curriculum developers resulting from the emergence of a strong sense of local distinctiveness during this period alongside increasing pressure, during and following the transition to Chinese rule, to ramp up patriotic education. Vickers’ study was paralleled and complemented by Flora Kan Lai-Fong’s history of the separate subject of Chinese History (2007). As Luk argued, Chinese History had long been a vehicle for transmitting or preserving a traditionalist sense of cultural ‘Chineseness’, but Hong Kong’s transition saw the subject thrust to the fore of efforts to introduce far more overtly politicised patriotic instruction.

Such efforts have been redoubled in the aftermath of the 2012 abandonment of Moral and National Education. The story of that failed project is recounted by Morris and Vickers in a 2013 article that analyses the historical context for both the official project and popular resistance to it. The 2012 controversy and the subsequent 2014 protests arguably helped spawn a new phase in Hong Kong’s political evolution, with the emergence of unprecedented forms of nativist sentiment amongst local youth (Veg 2016). However, the 2012 pattern of official over-reach and popular street protest, followed by a government retreat, was far from unprecedented, as Morris and Vickers showed. Perhaps, though, the protests of 2012 and 2014, by virtue of the tougher official stance they provoked, will come to be seen as marking the end of the road for what might be termed the Hong Kong model of informal street democracy. With their backbones stiffened by directives from Beijing, local officials have in recent years appeared far less sensitive to their lack of electoral legitimacy, and less inclined to back down in the face of popular protest.

This essay cannot claim to be a comprehensive overview of research on the history of education in Hong Kong. For example, while the landmark work of Tony Sweeting is noted, no systematic attempt has been made here to scope the literature relating to the pre-1941 period. One significant contribution to research on that period is Peter Cunich’s A History of the University of Hong Kong, 1911-1945 (2013).

Nevertheless, the fact remains that the history of education is a relatively neglected aspect of research into the Hong Kong past. Moreover, what research does exist is often overlooked, in part because an artificial disciplinary gulf between ‘historians’ and ‘educationalists’ often leaves scholars ignorant of work conducted by those outside their own field (a failing which the present author doubtless exhibits here…).

Among the issues in Hong Kong’s educational history that deserve more scholarly attention is the role of schooling in exacerbating, reproducing and legitimating the extreme inequality that has been a consistent feature of local society (see Morris and Sweeting 1995) – but which has become more acute in the post-retrocession period. How social inequality has been related to the structural and ideological features of the schooling system, and how and why Hong Kong differs in this respect from other East Asian societies, is a question that should concern historians – not least because of its importance for understanding the tensions that wrack local society today.




Peter Cunich (2013). A History of the University of Hong Kong, 1911-1945. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Flora Kan Lai-fong (2007). Hong Kong’s Chinese History Curriculum from 1945: Politics and Identity. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Bernard Luk Hung-kay (1991). ‘Chinese Culture in the Hong Kong Curriculum: Heritage and Colonialism,’ Comparative Education Review, 35/4, 650-668.

Paul Morris (1991) ‘Preparing pupils as citizens of the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong: an analysis of curriculum change and control during the transition period’, in G. Postiglione (ed.) Education and Society in Hong Kong, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 117–45.

Paul Morris and Anthony Sweeting (eds). Education and Development in East Asia. New York: Garland (see especially Introduction, and ‘Hong Kong’ chapter by Sweeting).

Morris, P., McClelland, J. and Wong, P. (1997). ‘Explaining curriculum change: Social Studies in Hong Kong’, Comparative Education Review, 41 (1), 27-43.

Morris, P. and Adamson, B. (2010) Curriculum, Schooling & Society in Hong Kong. Hong Kong: The Hong Kong University Press.

Paul Morris and Edward Vickers (2015). ‘Schooling, politics and the construction of identity in Hong Kong,’ the 2012 “Moral and National Education” crisis in historical context,’ Comparative Education, May 2015, 305-326.

Alastair Pennycook (1998).  English and the Discourses of Colonialism. London: Routledge.

Anthony Sweeting (1993). A Phoenix Transformed. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.

Anthony Sweeting (1990). Education in Hong Kong Pre-1841 to 1941: Fact and Opinion. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Anthony Sweeting (2004). Education in Hong Kong 1941 to 2001: Visions and Revisions. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Anthony Sweeting and Edward Vickers (2007). ‘Language and the History of Colonial Education: the case of Hong Kong,’ Modern Asian Studies 41/1, 1-40.

Sebastian Veg (2016). ‘The Rise of Localism and Civic Identity in Post-handover Hong Kong: Questioning the Chinese Nation-state,’ The China Quarterly, vol. 230, 323-347.

Edward Vickers (2003 / 2005). In Search of An Identity: the politics of History as a school subject in Hong Kong,1960s-2002 (Routledge 2003; revised and updated paperback published in 2005 by CERC/HKU Press).

Edward Vickers and Flora Kan (2005). ‘The Re-education of Hong Kong: Identity, Politics and History Education in Colonial and Postcolonial Hong Kong,’ in Vickers and Jones (eds.), History Education and National Identity in East Asia. London and New York: Routledge: 171-202.

Edward Vickers (2011). ‘Learning to love the Motherland: “National Education” in Post-retrocession Hong Kong,’ in Muller (ed.) Designing History in East Asian Textbooks. London and New York: Routledge, 85-106.

Ting-hong Wong (2002). Hegemonies Compared: State Formation and Chinese School Politics in Postwar Singapore and Hong Kong. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.