Locals-only in Hong Kong schools will send the wrong message

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 January, 2013, 5:33am

Hong Kong parents can heave a sigh of relief after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced that the policy of no delivery bookings for expectant mainland mothers whose husbands are not legally resident here will be maintained in the longer term. But that does not mean the tension arising from an influx of children born to mainland parents will soon be over. The zero-birth quota will not stop children who have obtained the right of abode by being born here from returning to study.

The pressure is apparently shifting from maternity wards to primary schools near the border. As more parents living in Shenzhen choose to send their Hong Kong-born children to study in the Northern District, it creates mounting competition with local children, with some being forced to study in schools far away from home. Internet chat rooms have been flooded with abusive language against mainlanders. Protests similar to the ones targeting cross-border parallel traders are under way. Officials cannot afford to sit back and do nothing.

The government is under growing pressure to curb the influx. It has been suggested that locals should be given priority in school admission. Given Leung's pledge to take care of Hong Kong citizens' needs first, the proposal is hardly surprising. The "local-first" mentality is already reflected in the zero-birth quota for mainland mothers and "locals-only" flats.

The chief executive is perhaps right to say babies born to non-local parents will have an impact on our education, medical and other services. But he has every reason to resist giving locals priority in schooling. Children who were born here but live across the border are not different from locals in terms of their status. They are also permanent residents, with the same rights to education and other services before the law. Any different arrangement based on their parents' background or where they live is discriminatory and open to legal challenge.

Hong Kong prides itself on being a city with equal opportunities. Instead of keeping the children away, preparing for their arrival is a better approach. The government previously expected that up to half of the 200,000 mainland children born here may return to study. But recently, education chief Eddie Ng Hak-kim conceded that the number could have been over-estimated. A review is needed to ensure there will be enough school places for eligible children on both sides of the border. They should have equal access to the school they prefer.