24 October 2016
Young students wait outside the mainland customs and immigration counter at Shenzhen's Futian border checkpoint before boarding buses to their kindergartens in Hong Kong. Photo: Tencent
Young students wait outside the mainland customs and immigration counter at Shenzhen's Futian border checkpoint before boarding buses to their kindergartens in Hong Kong. Photo: Tencent

Cross-boundary students and their shared remorse

Imagine a three-year-old spending five hours each day, commuting to and from school.

That’s the life of a little girl who lives in Shenzhen but crosses the border to Hong Kong to attend an afternoon kindergarten.

Her mother has to wake up at 8:30 each morning to prepare for her daughter’s journey to school, even though the class starts at 1 p.m.

After breakfast they leave home at 9:30 a.m. and take the subway, changing two lines from Buji (布吉), a major residential district in northern Shenzhen, all the way down to the Futian (福田) border checkpoint. The journey takes about 90 minutes.

At the border, the immigration process usually takes 30 minutes or even longer during mainland holidays. After that is a 40-minute bus ride to the kindergarten in Hong Kong’s Yuen Long.

That, in fact, is the shortest route they can take from home to school.

Around noon, Shenzhen’s subway stations close to the border will always be full of young students and their parents heading for schools across the border.

Before long the Futian checkpoint will be packed by these people, and since most PM kindergartens in Hong Kong don’t serve lunch, many parents have to feed their kids while falling in line for the immigration clearance.

Mainland kids attending elementary schools in Hong Kong will have to get up at 5:30 a.m.

All the hassle can be traced back to the frenzy more than three years ago when mainland parents, taking advantage of visa loopholes, scrambled for obstetric beds to give birth to their babies in Hong Kong.

Better education, safer food, cleaner air, a freer society and, all in all, a better life for their kids guaranteed by the Hong Kong right of abode: that’s what enticed them to splash tens of thousands of dollars to gain a slot in the delivery quota or even gate-crash emergency wards of local hospitals shortly before labor to give birth in the territory.

But public uproar forced the Leung Chun-ying administration to slam the door in early 2013 with an indiscriminate “zero quota” policy for “doubly non-permanent-resident pregnant women” or expectant mainland women whose spouses are not Hong Kong permanent residents.

Yet until the 2013 policy shift, a decade of bonanza began in 2003 when the Court of Final Appeal unanimously ruled in a controversial case that Chinese citizens born in Hong Kong enjoy the right of abode regardless of the immigration status of their parents.

The court decision resulted in about 200,000 babies who became Hong Kong permanent residents by birth, according to estimates by the SAR government.

Today, many of these parents feel remorse for their hasty decision as their kids reach school age.

Non-local parents of “Hong Kong kids” have limited choice: either let their kids leave home early and travel long distance across the border to attend school in Hong Kong or spare the fuss to enroll them in international schools in Shenzhen or elsewhere on the mainland if the exorbitant tuition is not a concern.

Kids attending school in Hong Kong have another challenge: homework and relating with local classmates.

As textbooks are in traditional Chinese or English, parents find it hard to help their kids with the homework; the language barrier is also discouraging these kids from talking to classmates in Cantonese.

Even if these kids try hard to befriend their local peers, they are likely to be ignored most of the time.

Also, these kids have to board the bus back to Shenzhen after school while others develop closer ties in interest classes.

“My kid is not considered a mainlander in Shenzhen, nor a genuine Hongkonger in Hong Kong,” a mother of a cross-boundary student laments in an interview with the Southern Metropolis Daily.

Public schools in Shenzhen have long stopped admitting pupils born in Hong Kong and Macau. Under China’s household registration regime, these students do not have registered residence on the mainland, nor can they sit for admission exams for higher education or be entitled to medical and other welfare benefits.

Like Hong Kong, places in Shenzhen’s seven international schools are hotly sought after and the annual tuition is 80,000 to 150,000 yuan (US$12,380 to US$23,210), Shenzhen Evening News reports.

Now there have been calls for a mechanism for Hong Kong residents to renounce their right of abode but in a reply to a Legislative Council enquiry in 2013, the Security Bureau stated that once verified, the Hong Kong permanent resident status will not change.

It’s said the Shenzhen Municipal Education Bureau is now mulling over a pilot scheme to allow Hong Kong-born kids to attend the city’s public schools. But people familiar with the case noted the discussion is nowhere near a definitive plan yet.

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Designated immigration lanes for cross-boundary students at Hong Kong’s Lok Ma Chau control point. Photo: GovHK

Several companies in Shenzhen provide transport and child care services to pupils that travel across the border daily. Photo: Internet

Although parallel traders and pregnant women no longer crowd the Futian checkpoint following the government clampdown, the number of cross-boundary students is still on the rise. Photo: Internet

EJ Insight writer

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