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