Five years after the previous Hong Kong administration was forced to shelve plans for a national education curriculum in local schools following 10 days of protests against the idea, the contentious issue is once again back in the spotlight.
The concept, aimed at instilling patriotism and strengthening Chinese identity among local youngsters, became a major stumbling block for former Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying, with critics accusing him of trying to “brainwash” children with Communist Party propaganda amid fears in Hong Kong of the mainland’s growing influence in the city.
Previous governments have for the most part attempted to keep the idea under the rug, anticipating a fierce reaction from Hong Kong localists and pro-democracy activists.
But new leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who took over from Leung as chief executive on July 1, has made the topic a priority from the get-go despite the anticipated pushback.
In the last couple of months, her administration has been outspoken about instilling patriotism in pupils, which has stoked fears among parents, educators and students that plans for a compulsory course could be revived.
And the issue was back in the spotlight again on Tuesday when the government appointed Christine Choi Yuk-lin as undersecretary of the Education Bureau. Her former connections with the pro-Beijing Federation of Education Workers, a teachers’ association, sparked fears she could push for a national education curriculum biased towards the Communist Party line. Those fears led to a petition being filed against Choi taking the role, which gathered more than 17,000 signatures.
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The petition was the culmination of a months-long campaign against Choi said to have been fanned by opposition pan-democratic lawmakers in Hong Kong’s legislature. On Tuesday a number immediately seized on her appointment as evidence of what they said were hidden intentions on behalf of the government to revive national education. Some said those objections were a calculated effort to mobilise public opinion and suspicion towards the new government, with one eye on coming by-elections to fill seats declared vacant after six legislators were disqualified from the chamber.
For some experts, the issue is not whether national education should be taught, but rather how it should be done and what type of materials should be used.
Even before taking office, Lam had proposed instilling the idea of “I am Chinese” in children starting from kindergarten. Later, less than a week into the job as leader of the city, she told members of the Legislative Council that developing in students a stronger sense of national identity alongside an international perspective was a key area the government would be reviewing.
Similarly, when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Hong Kong in July for celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule, he also talked about improving youth education on national history and culture.
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The issue goes to the heart of tensions over the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong has been governed since its return to China 20 years ago. The principle was supposed to guarantee the city a high degree of autonomy under Chinese sovereignty, meaning Hong Kong would be free to maintain its economic and legal systems and culture under the umbrella of Communist Party rule.
But in recent years Beijing has become increasingly assertive in exerting its influence in Hong Kong, leading some to question whether one country, two systems is being eroded.
The push for a national education curriculum has been a case in point.
Political commentators believe Beijing is behind that push, hoping to strengthen the “one country” aspect over “two systems”. As it does so, a backdrop has been developing among Hongkongers of increasing negative sentiment towards the mainland. High-profile incidents that have raised suspicions about Beijing’s intentions have only fuelled concern about how much the central government’s interpretation of the governing principle may differ from that held in Hong Kong.
In 2015 the disappearances of five Hong Kong-based book publishers who eventually turned up in the custody of mainland Chinese authorities raised fears they had been illegally abducted or that mainland law enforcers had carried out activities on Hong Kong soil, which would be a violation of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.
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If Beijing and Hong Kong officials hope to win over a sceptical public to build enough support for national education, history suggests it will not be an easy ride.
When Leung’s government attempted to implement its programme in public schools in 2012, it found itself confronting more than 30,000 protesters on the streets. The demonstration snowballed into a 10-day action that culminated in a sit-in at government headquarters at the start of the school term in September of that year. In the end, the government retreated and withdrew the plan.
The trigger for the protest was a 34-page booklet titled The China Model distributed to primary and secondary schools. It was produced by the government-funded National Education Services Centre, which is affiliated with the Federation of Education Workers.
Critics of the teaching materials pointed to a section in the book describing how China’s democratic centralism had produced a “progressive, selfless and united ruling group”, while the political structure of the United States was painted in a negative light, focusing on how the rivalry between parties had resulted in people suffering. Even then-education minister Eddie Ng Hak-kim called the booklet’s contents “problematic” and agreed it should not be used in schools.
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Rubbing salt into the wound, the Education Bureau had invited Professor Tan Chuanbao, the director of Beijing Normal University’s Civil and Moral Education Centre, to participate in the compilation of national education materials. But after the curriculum was shelved the bureau cancelled that offer.
Following the fiasco, the government scaled back its push for national education. It not only shelved plans to make it an independent compulsory subject but also left it up to schools to decide what should be taught. Schools were also free to choose their materials, which would not be subject to the bureau’s approval.
Five years on, the current secretary for education, Kevin Yeung Yun-hung, said recently that national education had not been scrapped completely. Teaching on the topic was continuing in the form of different subjects and activities in schools.
He said the bureau would discuss with those in the sector how to move forward, but conceded he did not think there would be a separate subject for national education anytime soon.
Dr Leung Yan-wing, an adjunct associate professor at Education University specialising in civic education, said a multitude of factors influenced what materials teachers used to broach the sensitive subject in the classroom.
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He pointed out that with their heavy workload, teachers did not have much time to prepare teaching materials from scratch. Moreover, some primary school teachers were not well trained in teaching controversial topics.
He said there were other groups such as the now-defunct Alliance for Civic Education, where he previously acted as coordinator, that had been producing their own teaching resources in an attempt to present a more balanced view. However, it was difficult for them to obtain the generous funding the National Education Services Centre received in 2012.
As such, the alliance had only been able to produce resources in black and white, and without pictures, he said, making them unattractive.
“The market and time will define what [type of education] students get,” Leung said.
Despite strong reactions on the topic, Leung said it was still important to promote national education, but under the umbrella of civic education and in an unbiased and critically-minded manner. He said teacher training on the topic was necessary.
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“For example, we can get students to compare different newspapers, one more neutral, one more pro-China, and one more liberal, on the same topic,” he said.
He advocated a civic education curriculum as opposed to one focused solely on national education.
“As an individual, we can have different citizenships simultaneously – in terms of both status and feeling – such as being a Hong Kong citizen, Chinese, and also global citizen.”
Most open democratic societies taught civic education, he added, covering broader international topics rather than just national education.
Australia’s civics and citizenship curriculum aimed to help pupils learn to investigate international problems and nurture their capabilities in critical and creative thinking.
Leung said the subject of liberal studies was now serving that purpose in secondary schools, and was monitored by the city’s exam authority, with teachers specifically trained for the subject.
The focus should now be on the primary level, he said, with Primary Four and Five being a good time to introduce civic education.
“If we do not do anything, the pupils will still read from social media,” he said.
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Sze Chi-ching, 78, a former Hong Kong member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the nation’s top political advisory body, stressed the importance of having a local perspective to national education.
“It should be combined with Hong Kong’s historical background and circumstances, and never [in a] hard-sell [manner],” Sze said.
“It is inadvisable for [authorities] to regard patriotic education as [part of] political education.”
Sze said the promotion of patriotism should be part of traditional education, with local educators and experts coming up with the teaching materials.
But he said national education was important because Hong Kong had not yet “returned” to China culturally since the handover two decades ago.
“If the culture is not revived, Hong Kong will just be a hollow-core society because of a lack of core values, with people just caring about how much they earn today and tomorrow,” he said.
Even with existing parts of the education system that deal with politically sensitive issues, there is already much disagreement over the content of teaching materials.
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A new requirement was recently launched by the Education Bureau requiring junior secondary schools to have at least 39 hours of lessons within various subjects covering the topic of the Basic Law. Chong Yiu-kwong, a senior lecturer at Education University, said some teaching resources provided by the bureau for this purpose were not impartial.
He gave the example of one assignment discussing why the Basic Law protects the right to protest in Hong Kong. All three sources given to pupils to study painted the act of protesting as something negative, Chong said. One said demonstrating only reflected a superficial knowledge of democracy, while another claimed protests had made Hong Kong chaotic. The third source focused on the increase in prosecution of protesters.
“The teaching materials need to be balanced,” Chong said.
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Dr Lau Siu-kai, emeritus professor of sociology at Chinese University, said the approach outlined by the current education secretary was more “politically feasible” than the plan the government attempted to push through in 2012. Nevertheless, the issue promises to be no less thorny for Lam than it was for her predecessor.
Additional reporting by Minnie Chan