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    Greater China
     Aug 7, 2012


Patriots and protests in Hong Kong
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - Courses in civic education are accepted without controversy in schools in New York, Toronto, Sydney and other great cities all over the world. Indeed, they are seen as a cornerstone of good citizenship and national identity.

Not in Hong Kong.

Here teachers, students and parents are fighting tooth and nail against a national education curriculum that they see as an exercise in "brainwashing" mandated by a central government in Beijing intent on using propaganda as a classroom tool to win over the hearts and minds of the city's children.

A mandatory course in national education is scheduled to begin in some Hong Kong primary schools as early as September and to

 

be fully implemented in all primary schools by 2015 and in all secondary schools by 2016.

Weary of the anti-Beijing street demonstrations - some of them attracting tens of thousands of people - that have become part of the fabric of Hong Kong life since the city's return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, mainland leaders would like to see more patriots, not protesters, coming out of the city's school system.

Unfortunately for Beijing, however, the drive for a more patriotic education appears to be creating far more of the latter than the former in a city whose constitution, called the Basic Law, guarantees it autonomy until 2048.

Witness the turnout for a demonstration held on the last steamy Sunday in July: Led by the Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union (HKPTU), protesters numbering (according to organizers) 90,000 hit the streets to register their alarm over the possibility that children could be subjected to Communist Party dogma in a new course mandated in all the city's schools.

In the usual numbers game played whenever there is a sizable protest in Hong Kong, police low-balled the turnout, estimating only 32,000 people took part. The actual number of demonstrators probably lies somewhere in the middle of these two warring tabulations.

Whatever the case, it was an oppressive 33 degrees Celsius in Hong Kong that day, but that didn't stop a lot of angry people, some of them as young as five years old, from taking to the streets.

The newly installed administration of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, scrambling to quiet the roaring controversy, so far has only succeeded in feeding its flames.

To be fair, Leung inherited the ill-conceived program from his unpopular predecessor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who turned the chief executive's office over to Leung on July 1 after forcing the new course on to Hong Kong schools and allocating HK$13 million (US$1.7 million) to a thinly disguised arm of the central government, the Hong Kong National Education Services Center, to write the teaching manual for it.

The 34-page manual describes the central government as "advanced, altruistic and united" and contrasts mainland China's "selfless" one-party rule with "inefficient" multiparty democracies of the West, where "battles between political parties harm people's lives".

The manual fails to mention any of the darkest chapters of recent Chinese history, such as Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution - which killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions, and brought persecution and chaos to the country from 1966 to 1976 - or paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.

In an article published on the op-ed page of the South China Morning Post, the city's leading English-language newspaper, HKPTU chief Fung Wai-wah rejected the teaching guide out of hand as "brainwashing and indoctrination".

The manual has "shocked not only teachers and students but also parents", Fung wrote, adding that "it contains biased and untruthful information about the mainland aimed at sycophancy and singing Communist China's praises and is completely discordant with education's aim to foster independent and critical thinking".

Fung called on the Education Bureau to withdraw the manual, and Sunday's protesters turned out in their thousands to back him up.
The city's new education minister, Eddie Ng Hak-kim, caught between a rock and a hard place, finds himself getting hammered by all parties in this dispute. Obliged to support the new course, he nevertheless could not bring himself to endorse the teaching guide, which he admitted was biased in a radio interview last month.

Shortly after this admission, Ng made an unannounced trip to Beijing to meet with central authorities, the secretive nature of which, once the meeting was sniffed out by Hong Kong media, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor blamed on "internal communications problems".

Ng himself, although blasted with queries since his return to Hong Kong three weeks ago, has refused to speak about his sojourn in Beijing, only deepening the impression that he was summoned for a slap on the wrist and a stern lecture about loyalty to the motherland.

In an attempt to defuse the crisis, Ng met with HKPTU representatives and concerned students and parents, but the talks collapsed soon after they began, with one frustrated parent likening the failed dialogue to "playing music to a bull".

The HKPTU has called on teachers to stage a strike when the new school year begins in September unless the course is withdrawn.

Remarks made by the chairman of the China Civic Education Promotion Association of Hong Kong only served to inflame tempers further.

"A brain needs washing if there is a problem," Jiang Yudui said, "just as clothes need washing if they're dirty and a kidney needs washing if it's sick."

Analogies like that have done nothing to advance the argument for national education.

Indeed, last month three religious bodies managing school networks in Hong Kong - the Catholic, Anglican and Evangelical Lutheran churches - refused to launch the new course in its present form. These three churches sponsor about 30% of the city's schools.

While so far Ng has refused to budge on the issue, surely some compromise is in the offing. As things stand, he lacks the necessary political support in the Legislative Council, Hong Kong's 60-member mini-parliament.

With Legco elections looming in September, pan-democrat lawmakers, who occupy 23 seats, can be expected to rage against the proposed course, and even Beijing-friendly politicians are wary of siding with the government in a controversy that has become the latest symbol of the mainland leadership's heavy-handed intervention into Hong Kong affairs.

The business-minded Liberal Party, usually loyal to its political masters in the north, has come out against the course in its present form, as has the Federation of Trade Unions, which holds four seats in Legco and also often takes its cues from Beijing.

In addition, unity has cracked on the 29-member Executive Council, the advisory body to the chief executive, with Anna Wu Hung-yuk, a prominent lawyer and former chairwoman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, calling publicly for the government to delay the timetable for implementation of national education until the complaints against it have been resolved. Two other councilors have expressed reservations about the teaching manual.

At this point, despite the firm edict from Beijing, it is hard to see how the Leung administration - already off to a shaky start - wins this battle. Leung was mired in a scandal over illegal structures at his home even before he took the oath of office as chief executive last month and, since then, his every movement around the city has been dogged by protesters.

No post-handover Hong Kong leader has started his tenure in a weaker position.

In 2003, after 500,000 people poured into the streets in opposition to proposed national-security legislation that they feared would be used to curb freedom of speech, press and assembly in the city, then-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa was compelled to shelve the bill.

The current national-education blueprint might very well wind up on that same dusty shelf.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at kewing56@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1

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