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Church-run schools fear their Chinese future

Church-run schools, which account for a quarter of Hong Kong's kindergartens, one-third of its primary schools and more than half its secondary schools, fear for their future when they become part of the Chinese education system in 1997.

The influence of Protestant and Roman Catholic churches on education in Hong Kong extends far beyond the actual number of Christians, who make up less than 8 per cent of the population. And China's antipathy towards the church is well known, although there have been signs of pragmatism in recent years.

China's first education law passed in March says the "state practises the policy of separating religion from education. No organisation or individual can engage in religious activities which interfere with the country's education system." And while the National People's Congress (China's parliament) this year gave permission for foreigners to operate private schools in China for the first time, it specifically excluded religious organisations.

Hong Kong's post-1997 mini-constitution drawn up in 1990 promises freedom of religion. China's own constitution allows for the same freedom, yet there has been a long history of persecution of religious people. Church organisations were expelled after the communist victory in 1949, their schools, churches and other buildings confiscated.

The churches understandably feel nervous about the future of their schools in Hong Kong. In particular, far from being private institutions, the vast majority are wholly subsidised by the government, making them more vulnerable to electoral change.

The Rev Li Ping Kwong, of the Methodist Church, which runs 25 schools in Hong Kong, said: "If the government does not subsidise us we cannot carry on. If the worst happens and the government decides to take over (the schools), we will just have to let go."

But it is clear some churches will not go without a fight. Hong Kong's Catholics are reorganising into small faith groups - if one group is targeted after 1997 others will survive to carry on the church's work. But in education, the Catholic church which runs 300 schools has done the opposite - seeking greater unification among religious orders and the diocese in order to make it more difficult for Beijing to put pressure on specific schools.

Recent church delegations to Beijing were told they will be allowed to continue running the schools as before, but the concern is there will be a slow erosion of church influence over its own schools, according to the Rev Wendell Karsen of the Hong Kong Council of Churches, a Protestant umbrella group.

The churches acknowledge their power is already being reduced by circumstance rather than 1997.

The decline in those willing to submit to a religious life means more lay workers have been brought into the management of the schools. But apart from a refusal to compromise on Christian values and principles, and the right to teach religious education in schools the churches stress they are open to change.

The Catholic church has been instrumental in promoting the switch from English to Cantonese as the medium of instruction - important in dispelling the image of church education as a tool of colonialism.

Church schools which trained many of the colony's elites were seen as producing generations of socialised and domesticated Hong Kong "bananas" (yellow on the outside, white on the inside), said Mr Karsen. The belief of many churches is that post-1997 what will matter most is what is taught in schools rather than who is running them.

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