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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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".
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".
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
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.
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
Analogies like that have done
nothing to advance the argument for national
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.
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
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.
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
No post-handover Hong Kong
leader has started his tenure in a weaker
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
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