Posted: July 31, 2012
Like Typhoon Vicente that blew up out of nowhere last week and grew into a super strength storm within two days, the protest over Hong Kong’s new Moral and National Education study plan flared unexpectedly to become yet another major headache for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s new administration. The issue has actually been simmering for over a year but amid heightened fears about creeping mainland-ization that have followed his March 25 election, compulsory mainland-style political study classes for all students have suddenly become the latest cause célèbre.
July First is supposed to mark the end of Hong Kong’s protest “marching season” and the onset of a summer break. This year there has been no break. On July 29, tens of thousands spent another Sunday afternoon retracing their steps along the same sweltering route from Victoria Park to government headquarters downtown that they had followed only a month ago (July 5 post). This time the police seemed better prepared because fewer people were involved. (Organizers estimated 90,000; police issued a 19,000 estimate in time for the evening news but later upgraded to 32,000; which looked like 50,000 at least.) The organizers had planned for 10,000. They also negotiated ahead of time for extra careful police preparations … no pushing, no shoving, and no pepper spray … because this time parents planned to bring their children and kiddy karts as well for those too young to walk the route, which many were. If the government insists on teaching our children about politics, then we insist on teaching them how to protest, say opponents of the new subject.
HARMONY IN THE GUISE OF PATRIOTISM
The introduction of formal political studies into the general curriculum follows Beijing’s increasingly overt presence here since 2003 (June 20 post). This specific intervention is being traced to President Hu Jintao’s previous visit in 2007, when he came to help celebrate the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule. In his remarks to the banquet gathering on June 30, 2007, he said: “Young people are the future and hope of Hong Kong and of the nation. We must emphasize national education for children and youth and strengthen mainland-Hong Kong exchange programs for them in order to carry forward Hong Kong compatriots’ glorious tradition of patriotism.”
The project nevertheless gained little attention until Chief Executive Donald Tsang made it a key focus of his policy address at the start of the 2010-11 legislative year. Hong Kong had just concluded its divisive political reform debate when the Democratic Party’s Albert Ho made his controversial decision to compromise and then experienced what he later said was the worst heckling he had ever encountered in his “entire life” during the July First 2010 Reunification Day protest march. The government had reportedly prepared to re-introduce its Article 23 national political security legislation, withdrawn after the first big march on July 1, 2003, and mainland investigators came to test the waters. But all who were asked including local loyalists agreed that tensions were too great to risk another upheaval ahead of the 2011-2012 triple election season (Aug. 30, 2010 post).
The authorities appear to have concluded instead that the best antidote for such disharmony was a more systematic mainland-style political study program. All possible resources would be mobilized, said Donald Tsang in his Oct. 13, 1010 speech. The District Councils, community organizations, national education groups, youth groups, etc., would be called upon to organize exchange programs and study tours so that the younger generation might “gain a deep understanding of our country, develop a stronger sense of national identity, and recognize the common origin and close bonds between Mainland and Hong Kong people.” Among other things, the government aimed to subsidize every primary and secondary school student to join at least one mainland study tour. Finally, the Education Bureau would entrust the Curriculum Development Council with the task of developing an independent subject to be called “moral and national education” for introduction during the 2013-14 academic year.*
CONSULTING THE STAKEHOLDERS
Everything seemed to be proceeding according to plan. The May-August consultation period last summer generated a containable degree of criticism and complaint after the first draft document was issued in early May.** The subject would be compulsory for all students, grades one through 12, at the rate of about two classes per week. All elementary schools were to introduce the subject beginning with the 2012-13 academic year and secondary schools would follow by 2013-14. The consultation document divided learning objectives into five domains: personal, family, social, national, and global. Critics focused on domain four (national) or rather the disconnect between four and five. The two seemed wildly at odds with no hint of how they might be reconciled.
Global learning objectives from the elementary level upwards were all about the “core values of the age such as equality, respect, democracy, freedom, rule of law and human rights.” National learning objectives in domain four were something else again and far more detailed. They began with a-political aims like learning to appreciate the beauty and richness of China’s landscapes and antiquities, but then moved on quickly to cultivating a sense of national identity (flag raising, singing the national anthem), fostering an attachment to ancestral homes in China, and celebrating Chinese achievements and achievers. At the secondary level youngsters would learn about the national constitution, China’s government, and Hong Kong’s place in the overall institutional design. They would study China’s development from its all-important special historical perspective and be encouraged to commit themselves to assuming responsibilities for the country, strengthening national unity, and so on.
Students would not be assessed by examinations but teaching guides that circulated with the main draft document suggested some sort of mutual student evaluation, arguably the most dubious aspect of the whole enterprise. Standards for teachers to consider in evaluating progress included not just a student’s grasp of factual knowledge but indications of emotional pride and attachment to the nation.
Concerned students, parents, teachers, and others immediately dubbed the proposed curriculum conducive to political “brainwashing” and began by sponsoring the usual round of meetings, rallies, polls, and petitions. Since the subject matter was already included in several other courses, this one independent focused study plan clearly had a political purpose. Still, the organizers thought they had done well when a couple of hundred protestors and a few politicians turned out for one final rally in August at the end of the consultation period. One of the student leaders, 15-year-old Joshua Wong Chi-fung caught the eye of a documentary film maker who decided to feature him and another young activist as representatives of Hong Kong’s angry post-1980s (and 1990s) generation that had burst suddenly upon the scene in early 2010. But Wong was the more moderate of the two.*** Given the tensions being produced by other issues, political studies critics seemed in all respects low-keyed and entirely manageable.
Their proposals were taken into account and a revised document was issued in April.**** The critics had won some concessions or so the government said. Others said it was only a matter of window dressing. For example, instead of just promoting harmonious unification with the Motherland, overall objectives now included learning to distinguish truth from falsehood with emphasis on independent thinking and regard for the value of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. All materials nevertheless remained silent on specific sensitive issues like the June Fourth crackdown in Beijing and other dangers of China’s one-party dictatorship. Final dates for all schools to establish the course in their teaching schedules were pushed back to 2015 and 2016, at elementary and secondary levels respectively.
FUELING THE FIRE
Nice try and it might have worked if only the national education issue had not dovetailed so perfectly with growing fears about mainland-ization that have followed in the wake of CY Leung’s election as Chief Executive. More than all others, in fact, this issue lies at the heart of the contentious debate over boundary lines within the evolving “one-country, two-systems” formula that governs Hong Kong’s post-1997 relationship with China. National education protesters added their numbers and placards to this year’s July First march. Some began calling for a boycott of the new course since schools are still supposed to begin introducing it as and when they can, beginning this September. Joshua Wong had set up a new group for secondary school students last year and called it Scholar-ism (學民思潮 … meaning intellectual trends). The group can now boast over 150 members who are showing up with their placards all over town and have made names for themselves as vanguards of the new national education protest movement.
In 2007, President Hu used the imagery of igniting a flame to promote patriotism but he failed to anticipate the law of unintended consequences that has produced instead a major backfire. The spark came from a recently-published just-distributed teaching manual for the new course, prepared by a semi-official loyalist group called the National Education Services Center that is subsidized to the tune of millions of dollars by the Hong Kong government. The manual was edited by Baptist University’s contemporary China institute and 30,000 copies were printed for distribution to public schools as reference material for teachers.
Titled The China Model [中國模式], it presents the now familiar official Chinese narrative, inculcated nationwide, which contrasts the defects of Western multi-party democracies with China’s system of democratic-centralism. Unlike the others, China’s system featuring concentrated unified rule is presented as “progressive and selfless.” It exists “mainly to serve the nation and its people,” and “guarantees political as well as social stability” (passages in Ming Pao Daily, July 6).
CY Leung’s newly installed Secretary for Education is (unlike his predecessor) a mild-mannered and unassuming man, and he seemed totally unprepared for the storm that engulfed him during his first week on the job. Asked to comment on the manual’s content, he initially said it was “problematic” and unfit for use in Hong Kongschools. But Eddie Ng Hak-kim [吳克儉 ] had begun to master his brief even before being summoned to Beijing on July 17. Thereafter, Secretary Ng and the new administration have refused to budge or even consider withdrawing the course as its critics are demanding (for example: http://www.edb.gov.hk/; also, Ming Pao Daily, July 25).
The pro-democracy Professional Teachers’ Union was first to raise the alarm as soon as some of its members saw the manual in early July. Since then the upsurge of protest has been led by a coalition of parents, teachers, and students. Besides the PTU, the lead organizers of Sunday’s march were the newly formed National Education Parents Concern Group and Scholarism. The main Christian denominations all run schools here and all have announced that they will not be introducing the course this fall. Pro-democracy political parties are all supportive of the protest movement but they were specifically dis-invited from advertising themselves at Sunday’s march because its organizers did not want their cause to be side-tracked by politicians campaigning for the September 9th Legislative Council election.
How critical concerns might or might not be accommodated is not yet apparent. Secretary Ng made no friends among them when he told organizers on Saturday that no matter how may people turned out for their march, it would have no impact on plans for the new course. An official at Beijing’s local representative Liaison Office said the course was a must and the head of one loyalist education-promotion group said that indeed, problematic brains should be washed just like dirty laundry.
The Professional Teachers’ Union is asking for a re-think of the plan with representatives of all views participating in revisions and in the preparation of teaching materials. But the administration has so far agreed only to set up a committee to monitor implementation of the course and is asking parents to trust teachers to do the right thing. CY Leung himself finally came out on Monday with a statement saying he appreciated the concerns of so many thousands who were worried enough to march in 90-degree heat. He also said the government had no intention of brainwashing their children. Presumably he does at least understand the problem although even that remains unclear at this point since his own children are out and away. All three are being educated in Britain.
* The 2010-11 Policy Address, paragraphs 158-162.
** Link, 2011 draft: http://www.edb.gov.hk/cd/mcne .
**** Link, 2012 revised version: Curriculum Guide (Chinese version)
Curriculum Guide (English version)
Executive Summary (Chinese version)
Executive Summary (English version)