Hong Kong Divided over Plans for Patriotic Lessons in Schools

Several tens of thousands of parents, teachers, students and children took to the streets on Sunday to protest plans to introduce "national education” into local schools at the behest of Beijing

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Dale de la Rey / AFP / Getty Images

Demonstrators hold a banner at a July 29, 2012, protest against a Hong Kong government plan to introduce a new curriculum into local schools that aims to teach students about China’s history and to strengthen their national identity

Is Hong Kong turning communist? That may be a strange, even silly, question to ask, given that Hong Kong, while a part of China, is an open and boisterous society. Yet many of the city’s residents are agonizing over precisely that question.

The British returned Hong Kong to China 15 years ago under an innovative “one country, two systems” formula that allows the metropolis to retain its freedoms, values and way of life. By and large, the formula has worked, but Hong Kong people are wondering if several recent trends and occurrences signify a pattern whereby their home is gradually becoming more like the mainland.

There is a growing sense that the police are becoming more heavy-handed during demonstrations, as during a visit by President Hu Jintao a month ago, when protesters were controlled with pepper spray and a journalist was detained for asking a question about the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Mainlanders, whom some Hong Kong people still look down upon as provincial, are seen as taking over the city as they flood in to shop at luxury stores, buy expensive flats and utilize already-stretched social services. Adding to the anger and frustration is the wide perception that Hong Kong’s new leader, Leung Chun-ying, is an agent of Beijing, which he firmly denies.

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The latest manifestation of concern over “sinification” is the Hong Kong government’s plan to introduce “national education” into local schools at the behest of Beijing. The new subject aims to teach students about China’s history and culture, as well as to strengthen their national identity and help them “foster a sense of affection for the country,” according to the Education Bureau’s curriculum guide. It will be taught in some elementary schools beginning this September and is to be mandatory in 2015 for all public elementary schools and 2016 for public high schools.

Several tens of thousands of parents, teachers, students and children took to the streets on Sunday, July 29, to protest national education. But the government remains unmoved. Its No. 2, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, told reporters that national education has support from parents and teachers, who want children to “build up their understanding of the country.” Survey figures are conflicting, ranging from 43% teacher support to 80%, depending on who does the study. Lam said the curriculum would go ahead, though she pledged to form a broad-based committee to examine its progress.

Lee Chack-fan, a professor at the University of Hong Kong and the head of the body that devised the national-education-curriculum guidelines, defends national education as learning that will help Hong Kong students in their careers, which will likely involve the mainland. While he acknowledges that instilling national pride is controversial, he says that “whether you identify with the mainland system or otherwise, you still have this Chinese root.”

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But much of Hong Kong, whose older generation fled the mainland and communism decades ago, is leery of the controversial new subject’s purpose and its contents. The public balked at the first draft of the curriculum guide, as it omitted topics the Chinese leadership would wish to keep quiet, such as the disastrous 1966–76 Cultural Revolution and the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. The controversy calmed down after those topics were included in a new version of the guide.

But fears were stoked again when a teaching booklet called The China Model was published and distributed to schools by a government-funded, pro-Beijing organization. The booklet calls China’s ruling group “progressive, selfless and united” and criticizes the U.S.’s political system as being detrimental for public good. The text says that in the U.S., “often because of the two parties’ campaigning needs or arguments, annual fiscal plans fail to get passed, and the government shuts down and public services stop, directly affecting the public’s everyday functioning.” In short, the booklet disparages democracy.

While teachers are not required to use The China Model for classes, no mainstream textbook publishers have issued teaching materials for the national-education curriculum yet. For many parents, teachers and students, the booklet’s contents seem to confirm their worries that national education will be a form of brainwashing, and they question why a Marxist theorist academic on the mainland has been put in charge of the curriculum, a revelation uncovered by a local magazine in May. “Hong Kong people feel that the national education proposed is some kind of indoctrination rather than education,” says Leung Yan-wing of the Hong Kong Institute of Education.

Joshua Wong, a 15-year-old leader of a student organization that opposes national education, says students should learn about China, but notes that such information is already included in civic-education classes. He also objects to national education’s goal of cultivating students’ pride, gratitude and emotional connection toward the mainland. He says: “We think a school subject should not use emotions but knowledge as a foundation.”

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The underlying belief among the public is that national education is not about learning but about politics, a way to bind Hong Kong more closely to the mainland. “It appears that Beijing is getting impatient,” says Emily Lau, a legislator who is vice chairman of the Democratic Party. “They want us to have one country, one system. They want us to be like other Chinese cities.”

Yet local sentiment against the mainland — and mainlanders — is rising. Many Hong Kong citizens appreciate being a part of an ever stronger nation and readily accept the economic goodies Beijing often tosses Hong Kong’s way, such as trade and financial privileges not granted to other Chinese jurisdictions. At the same time, Hong Kong folk resent the influx of mainlanders buying up property and stretching the resources of local schools and hospitals, and label them “locusts.” The latest regular survey by the University of Hong Kong about local attitudes toward China showed that 46% of respondents identified themselves as “Hong Kong citizens” and just 18% as “Chinese citizens” (the rest saw themselves as some combination).

Some observers believe that concerns about the sinification of Hong Kong are overblown and that the city has enough safeguards in place. “The fact that you can look at news from 10 different channels, the fact that you’ve got so much open to you means that people are going to get all kinds of information,” says Gordon Mathews, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studies culture and identity. “There is this hair-trigger mentality of people saying, We will not become like the mainland.”

Still, even those who have participated in the governing of Hong Kong say the territory needs to be vigilant. “We must continue to be alert, to know what really China wants in Hong Kong,” says Allen Lee Peng-fei, former legislator and convener of the Executive Council, an influential advisory body. “We don’t want to be puppets. We don’t want to be only followers.”

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