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Hong Kong: National Education Scrapped but Tensions Continue

The Hong Kong government's controversial plan to introduce a moral and national education curriculum (hereafter national education) in elementary schools has finally been scrapped after rigorous citizen protests - including hunger strikes.

The government has finally promised to scrapped the mandatory three-year deadline for the implementation of the curriculum and let the schools make their own decisions.

Background

The term “national education” was introduced in Hong Kong back in July 2007, when Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, attended the tenth anniversary ceremony of Hong Kong reunification with China. He stressed that Hong Kong “should put more emphasis on national education for young people”.

In 2010, former Chief Executive of Hong Kong Donald Tsang mentioned national education in his Policy Address. But the public was unaware of the policy until May 2012 when Scholarism [zh], a student activist group, organized a rally demanding the withdrawal of the curriculum.

On July 29, 2012, a civic coalition composed of Scholarism, the Parents Concern Group and the Professional Teachers’ Union, co-organized a mass rally against the curriculum; since then the anti-national education campaign has become a common agenda of Hong Kong society.

Anti-national education protest - our children. Photo taken by Leung Ching Yau Alex CC: BY-NC-SA.

Anti-national education protest – our children. Photo taken by Leung Ching Yau Alex CC: BY-NC-SA.

Why are Hong Kong people so hostile to national education? Wong Kwok-kui, a writer at inmediahk.net explains [zh]:

在反對國民教育的聲音中,常聽到一種說法:「我們不反對國民教育,但內容不可偏頗,要提六四等……」先贊同對方的前提,再斟酌內容。這等於敵人送一隻木馬來,守城的人竟先讓木馬進城,然後才慢慢看它肚子裏裝的是什麼。如此開門引虎,把自己置於危險的境地而不知。…

如果硬要推行,所謂的認同,就變成簡單的「我=它」,硬把自己投射到一個更大的群體上。(如策發會文件提到的所謂「we-ness」的建立)在這個過程中,必然會把認同對象一些負面的東西排除掉,這認同才能成立。…日本右翼分子要重建國民自豪感,則必須先否定所謂「自虐歷史觀」,否定南京大屠殺。…所以,民族認同從來都是雙利刃,施之於心智未成熟的小孩身上,即使沒有荼毒兒童的意圖,也會有荼毒之效果。

There is a saying within the anti-national education camp: “We do not reject national education, but the content should not be biased and should mention controversial subjects such as the June 4 crackdown…”. Such a position means you agree with the opponent’s premise and ready to negotiate for the substance later. The situation is similar to the Greek's Trojan horse story: the guards allow the wooden horse enter the city without checking what's inside. This is dangerous…

If [the curriculum] is implemented, [national] identification will become a simple equation of “I” to “it” [the nation], which means to forcibly project oneself onto a community. (As mentioned in a government think-tank policy paper, the so-called “identification of ‘we-ness’.) In the process, some negative aspects of the identification object would be consciously omitted… For example, to re-build their national pride, the Japanese right-wing has given up a “reflective historism” [the Japanese right wing called the self-reflection upon Japanese military crime during the WII as a "masochist historism" (「自虐歷史觀」)] and denied the the Nanjing Massacre history… National identification is always a double-edged sword which brings lifelong torment to immature children, even though it does not intend to do so.

Storm of protests

What has ignited the storm of protests is the ‘China Model – National Conditions Teaching Handbook’ which was published by the National Education Services Centre, run by the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers. The book omits a number of important historical events in contemporary China [zh], such as the Cultural Revolution and other human rights violations.

Enduring problems in human rights, rule of law, and livelihood in China are only briefly mentioned. On the other hand, it describes the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as a “progressive, selfless and united” entity.

Scholarism is the backbone of the anti-national education coalition. Led by Joshua Wong, a 16-year-old secondary school student, the group raised four demands in the July 29 rally: 1. Immediate withdrawal of the Moral and National Education Curriculum; 2. Review of existing civic education policy and curriculum; 3. Disclosure of all criteria for subsidizing institutions that promote national education; and 4. Re-establishment of the working group on human rights education.

As for the Parents Concern Group, its members are mostly middle class who are not interested in social issues. Yet these parents are anxious of the effect of the curriculum to their kids. They took to the streets in hot weather, crying “Please leave my children alone”.

As pointed out [zh] by writer Lu Yi in my1510.cn [zh]:

和不少在大陸成長的人相比,香港人對中國歷史的認知深度有限,但不少人本身就是生活在和中共密切的歷史當中,早年大部份從大陸走到香港的人,就是要避開如大饑荒、文革等的各種浩劫,現在這些人都當祖父母和曾祖父母了,你認為他們願意見到心愛孫兒們圍著紅領巾嗎?或是說著中共是無私的嗎?

遊行小孩的父母們在1989年是懵懂的中小學生,正因為學校老師與他們談論天安門事件,才有足夠的資料去進行多角度的分析思考,他們都珍惜這樣的環境,請共產黨放過他們的兒女。

Comparing those who grown up in the Mainland China, Hong Kong people do not have deep understanding of Chinese history. Nevertheless, many of them had living experience under the CCP's rule. They evaded from the Mainland to escape from disasters such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. They now become grandparents or great grandparents. Do you think they are willing to see their lovely grandchildren wearing red scarves [becoming the Red Guards]?

For the parents, they were innocent elementary school students during the June 4 crackdown. They are able to understand the incident from different perspectives because of the open discussion in schools. They treasure this kind of environment and want the CCP to let go of their children.

But can we simply equate national education with brainwashing? The Secretary of Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim stated that the public has misunderstood its purpose and emphasized that it is difficult to “brainwash” students through education.

Mainland media practitioner Han Ching believes [zh] that the problem lies in both the content and the pedagogy:

從內容上看,如果一些教材充斥的淨是不容置疑、一錘定音的論調,價值判斷遠多於事實陳述,且不講邏輯,不考慮學生的接受程度,即便結論正確,也可判定為「洗腦教材」。從方式上看,如果課堂上老師不允許自由討論,考試只是將課本所說定為標準答案,不引導學生批判地學習,而學校出於上級、外界的壓力或教材的有限無法自行選擇,那這種機制也可判定為「洗腦教育」。

In terms of content, if the teaching material is full of indisputable, unquestionable claims, with more value judgment rather than factual statements, illogical and ignored students’ doubts, one can say it has “brainwashing effect”. In terms of pedagogy, if teachers do not allow free discussion, if there is standard answers in examinations, if [teachers] do not guide students to learn critically, and schools cannot choose their own teaching materials due to political pressure, this is also a “brainwashing” process.

There are also disagreements and questions raised against the anti-national education campaign. For example some have raised the question: why did Hong Kong people not react against religion education or the British colonial system, which could also be considered “brainwashing”?

Ip Iam-chong writes a letter to mainland youth [zh] to answer these questions:

港英年代的主流教育是一種「世界上非常罕見的非國民教育」,港英政府沒有要我們成為英國人,即使在官立學校,也沒有系統性的國民教育。例如,當年官校學生對英國國歌旋律雖然熟悉,卻不懂得歌詞。英國歷史、政經成就、歸屬感等等,全都不是課程重點,更沒有英國的國民教育專科。更有趣的是,有官校的老師校長,積極鼓勵學生參加中樂團,對文化中國份外認同。…

香港沒有人反對「宗教洗腦」,而卻去反對國教,大概的原因有兩個。第一,這裡談及的宗教是多種多樣的。例如,天主教學校不少,但也沒有佔壓倒性的比例,至於基督教,其實內里分成眾多教會,它們之間是互不統屬的,各自有不同的教義及會堂連繫。第二,這些宗教背後,並沒有一個在香港或中國掌握權力的執政黨,換言之,沒有一個是國教。

Mainstream education in the British colonial era was a “non-national education” rarely happened in other parts of the world. The colonial government did not ask us (Hong Kong people) to become British. Even public schools did not have systematic national education. An example was that students from public schools were familiar with the melody of United Kingdom’s national anthem, but many did not know the lyrics. British history, social and economic achievement, sense of belonging, were not the focus in school curriculum. There was no independent British national education subject. On the other hand, some teachers and headmasters from public schools were actively encouraging students to join Chinese orchestra and identify with Chinese culture.

There are two reasons why Hong Kong people do not oppose “religious brainwashing”. First, we have freedom of religion in Hong Kong. The city has some Catholic schools, but they are not the majority. As for Protestantism, the churches are independently run with different principles and connections. Second, all the religions are not back by ruling party or power. In other words, Hong Kong does not have a national religion.

Rose Luqiu, a veteran media practitioner admits that the Hong Kong government could have done better in introducing national education. But she stresses that in an open society, no one can exclude a pro-national education viewpoint [zh]:

畢竟香港的學校,一直自主選擇教材。說實話,和這本手冊的內容比起來,一些傳統左派學校的國情教育,想必更加的正面和片面。但是香港是一個擁有言論自由和學術自由的地方,你可以批評內容的偏頗,大家進行討論,但是不能禁止這樣的觀點和聲音,包括這本手冊,除非內容涉及違法。

After all, schools in Hong Kong can decide their own teaching materials. To be honest, the patriotic education from pro-Beijing schools must be more loop-sided than the [China Model] handbook. However, Hong Kong is a place with speech and academic freedom. You can criticize the teaching materials biased but cannot ban the viewpoint and the handbook, unless it contains illegal content.

On September 8, the Hong Kong government finally made concessions and scrapped the three-year deadline for mandatory implementation of the curriculum, giving the schools autonomy to make their own decisions. However, the belief that the “implementation of national education is a political mission assigned by the CCP to the new Chief Executive” has spread and people are anxious about the city's political future.

Liumui points out [zh]:

阿爺南下,說香港深層次矛盾未解決,香港深層次矛盾太深,估計特區管制團隊是很難找到的,即便是找到了也不認識。從民生問題延伸到體制轉型,特區政府接二連三的進退失據,顯得捉襟見肘,完全是一個令人感到不可思議的行政能力!任何政策和計劃的推出怎麼都是飽受爭議,為什麼在事前的諮詢和收集意見時沒有較長時間的緩衝期。推出的政策如完成下達的任務一樣,國民教育科就是其中一例,市民本身對於某團體就是具有長期的不信任和抗拒,為什麼在市民有反對聲音時不出來做出說明呢?面對情緒不能疏導解釋而是選擇躲避,看來是想硬闖關!不更加讓民眾產生懷疑和猜測?

Beijing believes that Hong Kong has unresolved deep-seated conflicts and the city administrators are incapable of dealing with the problem. The government has failed in all policy areas, from livelihood to institutional transformation. The administrative body is so weak that one can hardly imagine! Every policy and plan has become controversy, yet it doesn't improve the consultation arrangement. Policy implementation is presented in a manner like political mission. In the case of national education, when people expressed distrust and oppositions, the government did not even care to explain and channel public discontents. Instead, it insisted to push through the policy by all means. Don’t they realize that such gesture will generate more public distrust?

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