Politics, power, and ethnic minority children’s rights in postcolonial Hong Kong

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Post-colonial Hong Kong is experiencing a massive wave of immigration and has an increasingly multilingual and multi-ethnic population. The Population By-census of 2016, the most recent available, indicated that around 8% of Hong Kong’s 7.34 million population were of non-Chinese ethnicity (referred to as “ethnic minorities”), mainly from South/Southeast Asian countries such as Nepal, India, Pakistan and the Philippines (Census and Statistics Department, 2017). When excluding foreign domestic helpers, who reside in Hong Kong on short-term contracts and are less represented in the local education system, there were 262,588 ethnic minorities, making up 3.58% of the total population. In the pre-tertiary pipeline, the number of minority students in public sector schools, meanwhile, has increased from 7,137 in 2005/06 to 18,200 in 2016/17 (Legislative Council, 2017). A structured ethnic stratification in the Hong Kong society positions these South/Southeast Asians (speaking a primary language rather than Cantonese) from less economically-advanced countries as a non-Chinese non-Anglo underclass. This study utilizes the Bourdieusian conception of linguistic capital, examining colonial and post-colonial language-in-education policies pertaining to South/Southeast Asian children. It discusses ways these policies impact on children’s rights to a non-discriminatory social studies education and to empowering curriculum knowledge.

Language as a type of capital symbolizes ‘the underlying social, economic, and political struggles’ (Tollefson, 2002, p. 5) occurring in a polity. According to Bourdieu (1997), the language of the dominant group defines the linguistic habitus which is embodied in the educational system, thereby preventing other languages from gaining legitimacy. Consequently, language education policy as both medium and message (Fairclough, 1989), sidelines those with insufficient linguistic capital, contributing to the continued workings of structured ethnic stratification beyond linguistic and cultural differences.

Based on this conception, this study examines the continuity and transformation of linguistic capital in the pre- and post-handover periods of Hong Kong as a response to the interaction of political and socio-economic forces across colonialization and post-colonization. I discuss how certain types of linguistic capital impact on teaching and learning of social studies. Specifically, I discuss how denial of language rights inhibit learning for rights and empowerment in the curriculum.

This study involved a documentary analysis and an interview study. The documentary analysis reviewed policy documents and examined historically noteworthy progressive steps towards language policies juxtaposed with recent indicators of policy development that might influence minority children. The follow-up interviews were conducted with school administrators, teachers, and minority parents and students and aimed to provide an in-depth understanding of the issues.

The research results reveal that language policy in post-colonial Hong Kong moves swiftly from diglossic and superposed bilingualism to triglossic. Historically, English achieved unquestioned status over other languages during the colonial period. In the post-handover period, the role of English has moved from a colonial language to an international language and its status as linguistic capital has been shared by Cantonese and Putonghua. In particular, the increasing value of Cantonese as a defining characteristic of citizenship and education, and of market participation since 1997, is associated with the initiation of a compulsory Chinese-medium instruction policy, which wrongly assumes that local children all share the same mother tongue (Cantonese). The changing language status and power relationships between different ethnic groups in the postcolonial context are continuously played out in public schools, where minority students find themselves excluded from school and the curriculum.

Although various international human rights instruments, including UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, guarantee the principle of nondiscriminatory education, this investigation indicates that Hong Kong has a long way to go in addressing language as ‘a prohibited discriminatory ground’ in education, in managing ethnolinguistic diversity against linguicism (Skutnabb-Kangas, 1998) and a means in realizing equal citizenship rights. Copyright © 2018 CIES. All Rights Reserved.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2018
EventThe 62nd Annual Conference of the Comparative and International Education Society: “Re-Mapping Global Education: South-North Dialogue” - Mexico City, Mexico
Duration: 25 Mar 201829 Mar 2018


ConferenceThe 62nd Annual Conference of the Comparative and International Education Society: “Re-Mapping Global Education: South-North Dialogue”
Abbreviated titleCIES 2018
CityMexico City
Internet address


Gao, F. (2018, March). Politics, power, and ethnic minority children’s rights in postcolonial Hong Kong. Paper presented at the Comparative and International Education Society CIES 2018 Annual Conference: Re-Mapping Global Education: South-North Dialogue, Popular Art Museum, Mexico City, Mexico.


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