HONG KONG – Long before the start of the school year, Chim Hon Ming, principal of a primary school in Hong Kong, knew that the number of students this year would be smaller. The city’s birth rate had already fallen, and families were increasingly frustrated with Hong Kong’s strict pandemic restrictions and political unrest.
Even he was not prepared for the magnitude of the exodus. When school started last month in its western Hong Kong Island district, first-grade classes were about 10% smaller than the year before, a decrease of more than 100 students.
“This drop has come so quickly,” Chim said.
As Hong Kong was battered by two years of upheaval, between the pandemic and sweeping political repression from Beijing, many consequences were immediately visible. Businesses have closed, politicians have been arrested, tourists have disappeared. A major change is looming: the determination of some residents that the city is no longer the place where they want to raise their children.
Last year, Hong Kong experienced a population decline of 1.2%, the largest since the government began keeping records in the 1960s. From July 2020, when China imposed a law on national security, until the following July, more than 89,000 people left the city of 7.5 million people, according to provisional government data.
The number is likely to increase. The two times the government has updated its provisional data for the past two years, the number of departing residents has more than doubled.
Officials did not specify how many of those departures were students. But they have proposed at least one measure: Hong Kong primary schools will have 64 fewer first-graders this year than last year, according to statistics released by the Bureau of Education late last month after a annual student count.
The numbers seem to confirm a trend that educators have been warning about for months. A May survey by the city’s largest teachers’ union found that 30 percent of primary schools surveyed had seen more than 20 students withdraw. (The union, which was pro-democracy, recently dissolved under pressure from the government.) Another survey in March by a pro-Beijing union found that 90% of kindergartens had lost students, more half of managers citing moves abroad as the reason.
Administrators say the rate has accelerated since then, with some losing up to 15% of their students after a summer of emigration. While many first-year class cuts were scheduled for the spring, the bureau ordered 15 more to be cut after the September enrollment count.
“They prefer their children to have more freedom of expression and to have a more balanced education,” John Hu, immigration consultant, said of the parents. Mr. Hu said his business had jumped after the enactment of the Safety Law, and families with children made up about 70 percent of customers.
The exodus of inhabitants has crossed society. Hong Kong was already facing a shortage of doctors, and in the 12-month period ended in August 4.9% of doctors in public hospitals and 6.7% of nurses quit, many to emigrate, according to the president. of the hospital authority. Residents leaving Hong Kong withdrew $ 270 million from the city’s mandatory retirement plan between April and June, the highest amount in at least seven years, according to government statistics.
The educational sphere is both the victim and the driving force behind departures.
From this academic year, the authorities pledged to instill obedience through “patriotic education” in mainland China. Subjects as varied as geography and biology must integrate elements of national security. Kindergarten children will learn about safety law violations. Teachers accused of sharing subversive ideas can be fired.
Anne Sze, a teaching assistant at a school, learned of the changes in March at a staff meeting. The director described how all topics in the future would include lessons about love for China, Ms. Sze, 46, said.
Until then, Ms Sze, who had become disillusioned with the political atmosphere in Hong Kong, had taken preliminary steps towards emigration but had no concrete plans. But after this encounter, she imagined that her own sons, 8 and 11, were being similarly “brainwashed”, as she called it.
She and her husband hastily applied for special visas that Britain is offering to Hong Kong people in response to the security law. In August, they left.
“If I didn’t have kids I might not see the urgency,” she said. But “the education system is not the same as before. This is the main reason why I have to go.
Government officials brushed aside concerns about a general exodus, noting that Hong Kong has always been an international city with a transient population. But even they recognized the blow to schools. Kevin Yeung, The city’s education secretary said last month that it was “a fact” that “many people choose to leave Hong Kong.”
The changes were perhaps most evident at Hong Kong’s most prestigious educational institutions, as families with the means to leave rushed to do so.
In the past, much of Julianna Yau’s job was to refer admissions offices to elite Hong Kong international schools. Ms Yau, the founder of Ampla Education, an admissions consultancy firm, asked them if they had vacancies or the long waiting list.
Recently, inquiries have been flowing in the other direction. Has she had any clients interested in applying?
“It’s quite different now,” Ms. Yau said. “There has been a surge of students who have gone to the UK in the past year.”
This wave has also rocked the bond market, payments parents can make to international schools to gain priority in the relentless admissions process. Some schools limit the number of bonds they offer, creating a secondary market with sometimes astronomical values.
They are still astronomical, but a little less. Debentures from a well-known school, Victoria Shanghai Academy, brought in about $ 640,000 per student in 2019, according to KC Consultants Limited, a company that trades used debentures. Now they are available for around $ 510,000 each.
The exodus is not limited to expensive international schools. Last month, the pro-Beijing teachers’ union, which represents many educators in local schools, called on the government to freeze teacher recruitment. He cited “the panic of the education sector” over the “serious crisis of class cuts”.
Mr Hu, the immigration consultant, said the new special visa route to Britain could attract families who usually cannot afford to move abroad. Historically, many Hong Kong people have used investment visas, which can require millions of dollars in assets, he said. The new route only requires that newcomers be able to support themselves for six months.
“I think this problem is common for parents: if they have the financial capacity to move abroad, I think they would,” Hu said.
Hong Kong also saw a wave of departures before 1997, when Britain returned control of the territory to China.
But many of these migrants were affluent residents who obtained foreign passports as “insurance” against the Communist regime while often traveling to Hong Kong. Many eventually returned full time.
The new immigration routes have more stringent residency requirements, making it more likely that current departures will be permanent, Hu said.
School administrators had to scramble to recruit students from other schools in the city. Dion Chen, the principal of a high school that has lost about 50 out of 1,000 students in the past year, said he filled about half of those vacancies.
He also focused on the less tangible work of supporting the remaining students. Her school introduced more recordings with students and handed out small back-to-school gifts, in part because administrators worried about the emotional toll of those whose friends were gone.
Mr Chen noted that more departures are likely to occur, particularly once the pandemic subsides and travel restrictions are relaxed.
“I don’t think it’s the bottom of the valley right now,” he said.
Joy Dong contributed reports