The Hong Kong government has backed down from its plan to implement “moral and national education” in public schools, in what is being construed as a major victory for civil society in the semiautonomous Chinese territory. The official about-face comes in response to hunger strikes by protesters and 10 days of impassioned but well-organized and peaceful student-led demonstrations that included a broad cross section of the population. The demonstrators forced the government to abandon a 2015 deadline for the introduction of compulsory patriotism classes that are seen as little more than brainwashing on behalf of Beijing. Momentum from the protests also appears to have favored pro-democracy parties in polls for Hong Kong’s legislature held Sunday, with democratic candidates winning three of five newly created seats and the democratic bloc holding on to its veto powers in the chamber.
From Aug. 30, when a dozen activists began hunger strikes in tents outside the new government headquarters at Tamar — a short distance from the city’s main business district — the area’s plazas and grassy expanses became the focal point for thousands of black-clad supporters. The protests came to a head on Saturday, when crowds up to 120,000 by organizers’ estimates (the police put the figure at 36,000) gathered to chant slogans and listen to speeches denouncing national education. At times, something of a carnival atmosphere prevailed, with plenty of families in the crowd and candy floss handed out to children. Demonstrators asserted a fierce pride in Hong Kong’s cultural identity and freedoms. “If Injustice Is the Law, Rebellion Is a Duty,” read one poster, echoing the U.S. Confederate Civil War cry.
Although no specific national-education textbooks have been set, a teaching booklet issued in July by a government-funded organization contained material that praised China’s one-party system and disparaged U.S.-style electoral politics, provoking outrage and stoking widespread fears of Beijing’s gradual encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy. The election in March of the head of government, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, by a handpicked college of 1,200 mostly pro-Beijing electors, was already a bizarre and uncomfortable reminder of the extent to which the increasingly politically sophisticated people of Hong Kong are excluded from the process of choosing their own leader. It added to a litany of recent grievances against the mainland. These include the growing concern that media freedoms are being eroded, and the increasing visibility of mainland Chinese in Hong Kong life — either as rapacious property speculators, as imminent mothers competing with local women for space in crowded maternity wards or as loud if free-spending tourists. In this context, national education stood no chance of a smooth introduction. “There is a certain countercurrent in which Hong Kong people feel they need to maintain their identity, their culture, their values,” says Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at City University of Hong Kong, adding that national education “has become a very symbolic issue.”
One of the protest organizers, Marc Cheung, 18, sees the demonstrations as part of Hong Kong’s political evolution. “Places that want to move toward a better society require fights like these when appropriate,” he says, adding that neither he nor the other organizers will be satisfied until the subject of national education is not merely deferred but withdrawn completely. “We’re not out of the woods,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University. “The question is always the timing, the way it’s introduced. [The authorities] will try again.”
Although smaller in size, the national-education protests recall the demonstrations of 2003, when the government introduced a national-security bill that critics feared would suppress political freedoms. Half a million turned out on a march that year, and the bill was shelved. Such popular movements indicate that the people of Hong Kong are as feisty and as freethinking now as at any time in their history. “It used to be thought, simply give it time, Hong Kong will gradually become closer to China,” says Gordon Mathews, an expert on cultural identity at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “But in many Hong Kong people’s minds this clearly is not happening.”
While many Hong Kongers are jubilant that they or their children will not, at least for the time being, be schooled in love for the Chinese Communist Party and motherland, the continuing political and cultural gulf between Hong Kong and mainland China will have serious implications for the territory’s future. Beijing has said that it will consider granting Hong Kong people the right to elect their Chief Executive as early as 2017 — but presumably not if it fears that Hong Kong is turning into a hotbed of liberalism and dissent. In that case, says Cheng, “the incentive, the willingness of further relaxation for democracy in Hong Kong could be reduced.” And the stage will be set for even more conflict between Beijing and its headstrong, semiautonomous region.
— With reporting by Zoher Abdoolcarim