The socio-economic factors in the preconditions for the development of localism in Hong Kong, 1950-81

October 10, 2022 | Blog
Home > The socio-economic factors in the preconditions for the development of localism in Hong Kong, 1950-81

by Zongyue Liu (University of Oxford)

This blog is based upon a grant awarded by the Economic History Society through its Research Fund for Graduate Students.


My research project concerns the preconditions for the development of localism in Hong Kong (HK) from January 1950, when the UK first recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the only China, to December 1981, before the first reform in democracy and the Sino-British negotiations on HK’s future were formally initiated in 1982. Localism in HK has been extensively studied in the past decade. It is distinct from the general case because its ultimate target is local democracy, rather than local welfare and/or the economy, and its essential driving force has been HK identity. My project defines ‘localism’ as an ideology that prioritizes the interests of local community, and the preservation of local identity, over other subjects, and ‘identity’ as an individual’s self-identification with a community.


Literature specifically on HK localism and identity has generally adopted a sociological or anthropological approach, focused on politics and culture, and by-and-large has focused on the post-handover period. This project investigates the development of education and housing in HK between 1950 and 1981, because both subjects are important to identity formation and, with housing particularly, the sense of belonging to a local community. There is a rich literature analysing the colonial government’s active intervention in the education system to suppress a PRC identity (which is different from suppressing Chinese cultural identity), to embed British values in HK’s younger generation, and to enhance their sense of belonging to HK. However, few scholars have looked at the socio-economic factors considered by the government when it tried to have most children properly taught in this system. And, despite extensive study of the development of public housing in HK since 1954, the redevelopment programme launched in the early-1970s and the private property market deserve more research.


My project therefore attempts to answer a number of questions. For example, why was free universal primary education not introduced in HK until 1971, almost one century later than in England and Japan, and six years later than in Singapore? Why did HK introduce free compulsory nine-year education only in 1980? Why was education largely provided by the private sector for most of the years, as shown in figure 1? What affected the public expenditure shown in figure 2? Why was the first university with instruction in Chinese established only in 1963, when over 95 per cent of HK’s population were Chinese? How did this Chinese university help to create a Chinese identity unique to HK and enhance this identity by improving upward social mobility of the Chinese community via the job market? How did industrialization and urbanization affect educational policy-making? How affordable was education to the public throughout the period? And what can be determined about the (un)equal distribution of educational resources by gender and by housing?


Figure 1.   Number of schools in Hong Kong by type and educational level, 1950-81

Source: the author.


Figure 2.   Public expenditure on education as percentage of total expenditure in Hong Kong and Singapore, 1950/1–1981/2

Source: the author.


My analysis makes use of four kinds of primary sources: administrative documents held in archives; HK local newspapers; statistics of HK’s economy and society; and autobiographies, biographies, documentaries, and interviews conducted by third-parties.


The preliminary results indicate that making the large number of young refugees and second-generation immigrants—their numbers are depicted in figure 3—good citizens was a key motive for the government to expand primary education from 1954/5 onward. For secondary education, the main motives were providing semi-skilled labour for industry, reducing juvenile delinquency, and avoiding political instability. The last one was also a major motive for expanding higher education; other motivations were producing qualified secondary school teachers and localizing the government. In addition, the United States was deeply involved in the development of Chinese-language higher education.


Figure 3.   Hong Kong population by place of origin and place of birth, 1961-81

Source: the author.


Primary education of an acceptable standard became more affordable in the 1960s, while secondary education became more affordable in the 1970s. This development was mainly due to increasing wage levels; strictly controlled school fees and rents; and the existence of fewer children per household. These changes also enabled the government to close pro-communist schools more actively from the 1960s, and increased opportunities for girls to receive education on equal terms as boys. The latter not only makes education more affordable in the long-term, but is also important for the emerging HK identity.


My preliminary results also indicate that educational policy-making was largely determined by policies regarding land use, public housing, and new town development. This possibly led to a positive correlation between education and housing. The correlation is yet to be analysed. The last part of my project provides more insights into HK’s wage levels and rent control.


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