Education system: Shenzhen & Hong Kong

By Sandra Uebelhart July 25, 2018 Edition CHIC 2017-2018Discover Flowlin project

One country, two systems does it also count for education? The aim of this article is to highlight the differences and similarities between the education systems of Shenzhen (China) and Hong Kong. Through interviews, we gathered insights about the curriculum, habits and feelings of both systems.

When we were in Shenzhen we discussed the topic from a Chinese perspective with Hailey, a student from Shenzhen Foreign Languages School. On the other hand, we have been able to discover the Hong Kong reality thanks to two students from the HKUST we talked to Gillian and Kevin, both engaged in business studies. Thanks to them, we have been able to test our perspective on both what we experienced in Shenzhen and what we live back in Switzerland.

Studies path

In Shenzhen, the basic course of schooling consists of primary school, where three major subjects Chinese, English and Math are taught. After that middle school, high school and university follow. It seems that in Shenzhen there are no alternatives than following exactly the path described above. Consequently, University is a must. One thing, which is very important to take note of, the education is severe, stressful and very important for your status within society. For example, students pass hours and hours on studying for the GaoKao exam – the entrance test for university. They have to pass six different subjects, wherefore they spend in average around one year to prepare – then failing is unthinkable!
In Hong Kong middle and high school are not really separated from each other as Gillian explained to us. However, my idea of a more dendritic education system was refuted. To get a university degree in Hong Kong is an imperative as well as in mainland China. A very interesting part was their unconsciousness about more practical job apprenticeships. They are unaware how painters or electricians are trained, which I guess is most likely linked to the uniformity of their education system.


Failing to avoid failure

In the previous discussion, we have introduced the education path followed in both Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Although we outlined the importance of achieving a proper university status, failing the entrance test, being the GaoKao in Shenzhen for instance, is still a possibility. What are the options then for students in China and Hong Kong? Both of them, according to the students, commonly find a remedy by moving abroad with their studies. By taking this path, students have the chance to finalize their studies while experiencing less competition. However, substantial financial support is required and families might not have such resources. Students from Hong Kong usually encounter the same option whenever they cannot accomplish their education path at full. However, a common approach in Hong Kong can also be identified in the general tendency to adjoin into their portfolio a series of skills and integrated competencies learned thanks to specialized schools in the area..


Stress Level

As you can imagine a lot of stress lies on your shoulders when you know that your performance at school has direct influence on your social status and your future life. In Shenzhen the source of pressure are mainly the parents as well as the teachers. In Hong Kong, family plays also a major role but the pressure for success at school is also built by the students themselves as they compare regularly their results with their peers.
Hailey from Shenzhen told us that her school recently published a list with the 50 least performing students by sticking the results on the entrance doors. Hailey mentions health issues, like depressions or mental problems due to this high and permanent exposure to stress.



The differences between Mainland China and what lies on the other side of the border are well known. While in Shenzhen we have been lost in services like Baidu, WeChat, and so on, in Hong Kong the ecosystem is less surprising and dominated by known Google, Whatsapp, etc. Such differences are not only present in the way we access social media services but are the result of a different perspective on the two realities with respect to expression. When talking with Gillian and Kevin in Hong Kong, we have come to understand that a big flow of international students in the city-county’s universities are mainlanders. According to them, such phenomena are strongly interested in a more “freedom” atmosphere which, incidentally, may lead to a stronger and performing research and education. In Shenzhen, this perspective about having more freedom in Hong Kong is definitely shared as we learned from Hailey. As many applications and websites are blocked for people living in China, they are not aware of things happening for example on Youtube. Hence, gaining worldwide information is hindered. A VPN is the only solution to overcome these boundaries but of course, this way is not at all supported by the government. Hailey highlighted that Shenzhen, as well as Beijing and Shanghai,  are however cities, which are considered as more open since they consist of a lot of young people who bring a lot of new mindsets and concepts to the city.


Our feelings

Having to explore a topic such as the education system in the two realities of Shenzhen and Hong Kong, was an incredible opportunity. We have been able to get in touch with two unique contexts and see how they can relate to each other on multiple aspects. However, we felt intrigued by the different approaches one could have caught during each interview. Hailey was an incredibly smart girl, but while discussing the topic with us, we had the clear feeling that she sees several deficiencies within the Chinese education system but was still conservative by enunciating them. On the other hand, the discussion with the HKUST students was far more willing to engage in the conversation. They have been very open and expressive regarding all our questions. Could this divergence in the approach be more related to others factor such as language instead? For sure it could be the case and our limited amount of interview won’t be proving it. However, while taking interviews a strong focus should always be external to the context itself, in order to catch transversal pieces of information from the body language to the speaking attitude.