Hong Kong and Taiwanese families in Beijing are reeling now the Chinese government has ordered Hong Kong and Taiwanese pupils to leave Beijing's international schools and attend local Chinese schools instead.
Under a new law, foreigners may operate schools in China, but Chinese children are forbidden from attending them. However, the new demand, which would affect some 200 children in the Chinese capital, classifies Hong Kong and Taiwanese children who hold no other foreign passports as "Chinese''.
The International School of Beijing, set up jointly by the US, Canada, Australia, Britain and New Zealand, has been told it must bar 21 students already at the school and 22 others registered to begin in September.
Originally set up for the children of diplomats, the school also takes in children from families transferred by multinational companies. Many are from Hong Kong and Taiwan because of their cultural affinity with China.
Business leaders say the move will deter talented expats from moving to Beijing, already considered a hardship posting.
Competition to get into good state-run schools in Beijing is severe and outsiders are unlikely to stand a good chance. In addition, Hong Kong and Taiwanese children learn Chinese using the more complex "traditional'' characters while China uses a simplified system, making it more difficult for older children to integrate into the local system. Many others do not speak or write Chinese.
The head of foreign affairs for the Beijing Education Bureau, Ding Hongyu, recently admitted the bureau was not aware that many of the affected children could not speak, read or write Chinese when it decided to implement the order. "We have not found a way to resolve this problem yet," he said.
However, there was little sign that the authorities would back down. Most likely it will designate certain privately run schools as suitable for Hong Kong and Taiwan children. These could include the Beijing Singapore International School, which has not been affected by the ban, and another school financed by a Hong Kong businessman expected to open next year.
Some 200 Hong Kong children already study at state-run schools in the capital, according to the authorities. The bureau's deputy director, Wen Zhe, said Beijing had no intention of forcing Hong Kong and Taiwan students to have a socialist education. "Students, regardless of whether they are from Hong Kong or Beijing are allowed to drop subjects they think are inappropriate for them," he said.
Meanwhile, principals of international schools in Hong Kong fear that Beijing may seek to enforce such a ban in Hong Kong after 1997 when the British colony reverts to Chinese rule.