Chief Executive Tung Chi Hwa's attempt to propel Hong Kong into the future as the trilingual commercial and services hub of Asia has run into trouble almost as soon as his detailed proposals to improve declining standards of English were announced.
In his first policy address earlier this month, Mr Tung announced a "worldwide hunt" for well-trained native English-language teachers to make an immediate impact on improving English language standards in secondary schools.
The recruitment drive will, it is hoped, net some 700 specialist teachers to top up an existing scheme which calls for two native English-speaking teachers in each school.
However the Pounds 1,700 a month housing allowance for each expatriate teacher almost doubles their earnings compared to local teachers. This has angered locals, many of whom were educated at Hong Kong's English-medium schools and universities. But the government considers that the existing scheme launched last year could not attract enough native speakers - only 60 schools had native English-language teachers.
Secretary for education Joseph Wong admitted recruitment difficulties because of the prohibitive Hong Kong rents which have overtaken those in Tokyo as the highest in the world per square foot.
However, chairman of the Hong Kong Association of Secondary School Heads Wong Wai-yu said in the past foreigners had problems adapting to the Chinese school environment. Many felt isolated as the only non-Chinese speaker on the staff and were unfamiliar with Hong Kong teaching methods which at secondary level do not always have audio-visual facilities for language teaching.
A decade ago many gap-year British students who had just finished their A-levels worked as language assistants in Hong Kong schools but headteachers say they were only able to assist in oral practice and were not qualified to teach. Many were living abroad and away from their families for the first time and could not cope.
Similar schemes to recruit qualified British teachers were attempted under colonial rule but it had not been thought politically expedient to be promoting English and recruiting staff from overseas as colonial rule was about to end. Hence, government officials said there was no pool of such teachers in Hong Kong and a substantial amount would need to be budgeted for advertising and recruitment overseas, not just in Britain but Australia and Canada as well.
But Mr Wong said only native speakers well-trained in teaching English as a second language would qualify. "Don't think that just because you speak English well, you are qualified," he said.
Mr Tung has allocated just over Pounds 20 million for salaries and recruitment of native English-speaking teachers in 199899 rising to more than double that amount in 2001-2.