National education curricula, PLA youth cadet camps, erosion of academic freedoms in our universities… these are just the tip of the iceberg! Communist Party propaganda mouthpieces masquerading as schools – much like the increasingly controversial Confucius Institutes overseas – may soon be coming to a neighborhood near you.

In late 2012, the Happy Valley & Canal Road District Kai-fong Welfare Association New Foundation Kindergarten (跑鵝區街坊會學校新立本幼稚園) was replaced by a dodgy-sounding Zhong Zhi College (中知書院).

Dismissing localist sentiments and conspiracy theories for a moment, a name transliterated from Mandarin should not necessarily imply anything illicit or sinister.

Zhong Zhi college. Photo: Google Maps screenshot.

Passing by the front of Zhong Zhi College, however, one could not help but wonder if something is amiss.  Its name is displayed on what looks like a hastily printed banner.  The windows of its seven stories of classrooms look all but empty, and have remained so for at least three years.  Students – let alone kids, or even people in general – are hardly ever seen around its premises, whose doors only open sporadically in the evenings and on weekends.

Nevertheless, there have been times when Zhong Zhi College was bustling with activity.  During the Occupy protests in 2014 and in the subsequent run-up to the Electoral Reform vote in 2015, the school was often used as a neighborhood “base” of sorts by Robert Chow’s “Silent Majority” group to store equipment and set up publicity booths directly outside the school.  It is not clear whether the individuals who participated in these events were school staff.

Zhong Zhi’s web site contains a fluffy-sounding mission statement about delivering cultural and vocational training courses to secondary school graduates and adults, and furthering knowledge and awareness of Chinese culture.  There are notices for courses ranging from Chinese calligraphy to programming Android mobile apps.

Along with a graphic depicting a group of ecstatic-looking Caucasian youth (representative of its student body demographic?), there are a few broken links and occasionally a text blurb in simplified Chinese.  How does one enroll for courses?  This much is uncertain, perhaps prospective students ought to write to the Yahoo Mail email address or use the Tencent QQ instant messaging link provided.  Not shady at all.

Robert Chow (right) with a member of the Silent Majority for Hong Kong. Photo: HongWrong

In bureaucratic terms, the school is a legitimate educational institution, officially registered with the Education Bureau.  According to its filings with the EDB (accessible through the GovHK portal), Zhong Zhi College offers a yearlong course in “Chinese Literature and History / Arts / Journalism, Communication and Advertising / Political Science and Administration / Management and Finance / Studies of China, Hong Kong and Protect of Nature and Culture”, for a princely fee of $38,000.  (the grammatical error is wholly theirs, not from yours truly.)

For those with constrained budgets, there is “International Relations / Liberal Studies” for a meager $5,000.  Also on offer is “Finance / Music / Fine Arts” for $8,000, for all those aspiring for jobs in investment banking while moonlighting as violin instructors.  Zhong Zhi has no shortage of teaching talent; they can impart mastery of all these disciplines with a full-time staff of one, according to its 2015 EDB filing.

A fee of $38,000 per course is no small change.  Could it be that legions of workers belonging to state-owned companies operating in Hong Kong are “attending” these classes, no doubt fully sponsored by their generous employers?  Conveniently enough, Zhong Zhi College is run by Zhong Zhi College Limited, a private company and tax-exempt charity registered with the Inland Revenue Department.

A Google search further reveals that Zhong Zhi College is affiliated with Excel London College (倫敦卓越書院), which, despite having a fancy-looking coat of arms, has no connection to London or anything loosely related to Great Britain, and has all the telltale signs of a diploma mill (albeit with Shanghai and Shenzhen “campuses”, impressive!).  There are also linkages to a certain New Chinese Association (新中華協會), another organization allegedly seeking to spread the warmth and fuzziness of the Middle Kingdom.  The web of fishiness keeps spiraling on and on…

The China Liaison Office in Hong Kong. Photo: HKFP.

Ultimately, ferreting out a direct connection between Zhong Zhi College and the Chinese Communist Party or the China Liaison Office will be a formidable, if not outright futile, effort.

Such a connection may in fact not exist, but opaque entities like Zhong Zhi are nonetheless well-positioned to serve as support networks for the CCP and the numerous pro-Beijing groups operating in Hong Kong, facilitating the channeling of funds and providing the logistics behind counter-rallies, propaganda dissemination, or outright illegal activity such as voter registration fraud.

Regardless of whether Zhong Zhi is the clandestine work of malicious agents working for Beijing, if this sort of activity is happening in a quiet residential neighborhood like Happy Valley, surely similar occurrences are taking place in districts throughout Hong Kong, and that is sufficient cause for everyone’s concern.

Frank Siu

Frank Siu is a financial econometrician working in the private sector. Born and raised in Hong Kong, he takes a keen interest in local affairs, particularly issues of rising social inequality and deepening political uncertainty. He enjoys curry fish balls and rubik's cubes.