Center on International Education Benchmarking

Following the first Opium War, in which the Ching Dynasty tried and failed to stop the British from trading with the Chinese in opium, the Chinese ceded a small group of fishing villages on the South China coast to Britain. In 1860, the Kowloon Peninsula was added.  The New Territories, which included the area north of Kowloon all the way to the Shenzhen River, along with many other islands, were again added, and a 99-year lease signed in 1898.  The whole of this British colony was known as Hong Kong.

By the time the lease ran out, Hong Kong, with its magnificent harbor and unique history, had become one of the world’s great trading and financial centers, a cultural child of British and Chinese parents.  But this history had only been layered onto a millennium or more of Chinese history in which the southern provinces of China had been a hotbed of trade (even when the rulers of China had closed the country to trade) and the home base of the overseas Chinese.

In the 1970s and 80s, when the Asian countries came to appreciate the possibilities for economic growth made possible by foreign direct investment in countries offering low-cost labor to the world’s manufacturers, Hong Kong quickly became an aggressive and able player in the game.  Unlike many other players, Hong Kong, already one of the most sophisticated cities in the world and among the top ten in GDP per capita, had a very strong financial community and was home to a number of the world’s most able trading companies. Unhampered by the anti-capitalist ideology of Mao’s mainland China, Hong Kong, by then home to more than 7 million people, established factories throughout its domain to provide cheap manufactured goods to be sold in the global markets.

But the price of Hong Kong’s labor began to rise as demands for its products rose. Fortunately, when Deng Xiao Ping succeeded Mao, he launched the new China by declaring a special district in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong in the Pearl River Delta, a district that was for the first time freed from the prior constraints to compete with the West on its own terms.  Thus was launched the creation of mainland China as the world’s factory, but, unlike Hong Kong, China did not have sophisticated, Western style financial systems with the usual legal infrastructure, nor did it have the kind of trading infrastructure that Hong Kong had developed over many years. Nor did it have experienced managers of commercial enterprises.  Hong Kong had all these things. To Westerners with capital to invest, China looked like a great opportunity cloaked in mystery.  But mainland China was no mystery to the business people of Hong Kong, and so, over time, Westerners with money to invest asked the great trading firms of Hong Kong to make the necessary arrangements to manufacture what was needed in mainland China rather than Hong Kong, because labor was much cheaper in the provinces of the Pearl River Delta, a geographic area the size of Europe, destined to become one of the great centers of Chinese industrial development.  In the minds of some, Hong Kong became the brains of the vast Pearl River Delta industrial complex and its principal connection to the larger world.  Some 80 million people on the mainland in the Pearl River Delta work for Hong Kong investors.

Because Hong Kong developed in this way, marrying Hong Kong’s unique capacities in trade and finance to the Pearl River Delta’s surging eagerness to provide manufacturing facilities to the world, Hong Kong itself early in this process ceased being interested in selling its own low-cost labor and became intensely interested in providing very high-value added services to the world and to the mainland.  Indeed, Hong Kong itself began to invest vast sums in mainland enterprises and to directly manage those businesses.

All these developments greatly affected the Hong Kong government’s view of its education requirements.  Whereas early on, the Hong Kong government viewed a large proportion of its own population as available for low-cost labor to global enterprises, within a very short time, it realized that that role had been largely ceded to the nearby mainland provinces and Hong Kong itself would have to educate a very large fraction of its population to global standards, because it had priced itself out of the low-cost labor market.

When the long-term lease to Britain ended, Hong Kong, became a Special Administrative Region of China.  It set about to figure out what it might mean to marry an intensely capitalist community to its Communist neighbor.  The process took place under a policy captured in the slogan, “One County, Two Systems.”  Hong Kong was to be an integral part of China, but would be allowed to maintain most of the systems it had previously developed more or less intact.  This applied to its education system, as well as many others.  Hong Kong became part of the PISA system before any province of mainland China and its results are still reported separately.  On this website, Hong Kong and Shanghai are treated as two separate jurisdictions.  That is largely because Hong Kong and Shanghai, both top performers, are very different education systems.

Hong Kong emerged as a world educational leader on recent international assessments – a feat that is all the more impressive considering that Hong Kong has essentially rebuilt its education system since 1997, the year Hong Kong was returned to China after a century and a half of British rule.  Hong Kong outperformed almost every other nation in the 2009 PISA assessment, bested only by neighbors Shanghai and Korea and the perennially top-performing Finland.  Hong Kong’s students ranked fourth in reading and third in both math and science.

Hong Kong’s Education Bureau (EDB) does not report to the Chinese Ministry of Education but rather to the Hong Kong government. Hong Kong schools are a hybrid result of both its British and Chinese heritages.  Until the 1960s, schooling in Hong Kong was a very elite affair.  There was only one university, which admitted only 100 to 200 students a year.  Access to both secondary school and university was determined entirely by examination.  Education planning was based on projected workforce requirements, which is why so few slots were available in higher education.

Following the 60s, there was an explosion of schools as aspirations for education soared, and a great debate ensued as to whether to offer three years of free schooling after primary education.  Nine-year compulsory education came in 1978.  The Secondary School Entrance Exams were abolished, but, despite the policy change, the best students were still admitted to the best schools.  And the curriculum continued to be based on drill.

Secondary education was nearly universal by the end of the 80s. The system for academic education was complemented by development of a rather sophisticated system for vocational education, with separate programs for apprentices, craftsmen and technicians.

The expansion of higher education followed through the 80s.  The most significant reform of education in Hong Kong since then started in 1999. Employers were demanding new employees who would be prepared for an increasingly complex workplace.  The schools, not so long ago dealing largely with a small elite, did not know how to cope with a mass education system set to elite standards.  A curriculum focused on memorization and a didactic approach to teaching were both inadequate to the challenge.  As blue collar work moved to the mainland, the education system was not yet set up to provide the kind of education to virtually all Hong Kong students that they would need in an economy based on high-value-added services.

The Hong Kong government launched an unprecedented campaign to involve very large numbers of their citizens and education professionals in a public conversation about the goals of the education system.  Preparation for these conversations was extensive and included briefings for the press at every level from editors to working reporters.  The Education Committee also carefully studied education in many other countries.  The result was a new design for education in Hong Kong.

Once the design was clear, the government organized for four years before implementing the reforms.  The exams following primary school were abolished, making it possible to shift from a regimen of rote learning designed to enable students to pass exams to curriculum and teaching designed to encourage real learning and active engagement of the students.  The planners embraced a constructivist view of the learning process, a focus on education for understanding rather than the accumulation of facts or the performance of procedures, the creation of learning experiences for students that would enable them to acquire and demonstrate understanding by applying what they were learning, and the use of real-life situations with actual effects as part of the instructional process.  There was a new emphasis on the integration of knowledge as well as the development of analytical skills.

As part of these reforms, the structure of the system is changing from the British 5 years+2 years+3 years system to a 3+3+4 system.  A new senior secondary curriculum was implemented in 2009, to be culminated by a new examination to be administered beginning in 2012.  These changes are being matched by changes in the higher education system, including more emphasis on experiential education and expansion of overseas exchanges.

Most schools were and continue to be sponsored by various private bodies, but are heavily subsidized by government.  A Code of Aid governs school operations, but, overall, the tradition in Hong Kong, unlike mainland China, is for minimum government intervention in the schools, though this stance has been changing in recent years.  It is this tradition that led the government to promote the profound changes just described not by fiat but by involving so many people at so many levels in deciding what was to be done and by promoting implementation through extended discussion rather then regulation.  The benefit is a deep and widespread commitment to the new agenda, but the challenge that comes with this approach is significant disparity among schools in quality that would not be tolerated in Singapore or Shanghai.  While overall performance as measured by PISA is high, the performance of some schools is poor.  This appears to be a price that the people of Hong Kong are willing to pay.



Ethnic Makeup

Chinese 93.1%, Indonesian 1.9%, Filipino 1.9%, other 3%


$320.7 billion; $58,300 per Capita

Major Industries

Services: 92.8%; Industry: 7.3%; Agriculture: 0.1%


Unemployment: 3.6% ; Youth Unemployment: 6.1%

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