Anger over 'brainwashing' class shows distrust of 'two systems'
“Are there any raincoats left?” a young man asked the cashier of a convenience store in the Admiralty MTR station yesterday afternoon.
“Sorry. We’ve run out of raincoats today,” the cashier answered without thinking. A number of people had asked her the same question in the same afternoon.
A pedestrian overpass connects the MTR station with the Tamar government headquarters. Over there, in a rally against the national education subject, thousands of people filled the 183,000-square-foot Tamar Park, watching an anti-national education concert set against an open view of Hong Kong’s beautiful Victoria Harbour. Many of them were sitting on raincoats on the park’s green lawns dampened by rain.
Organisers of the gathering estimated the number of protesters reached 40,000, while police said around 8,100 people attended the rally.
A local pornography website had shut itself down for a whole day yesterday in support of the protest, calling for its visitors to ‘put your pants back on’ and try to understand the protesters’ purpose and goal.
“The government should cancel the implementation of the subject,” says Candy Wong, whose 9-year-old son is about to start his fourth year in primary school tomorrow on Monday. “I don’t want my child to be brainwashed.”
Although national education has been in Hong Kong since 2003, the ‘Moral and National Education’ subject is set to be implemented on voluntary basis in the city’s primary schools from September 3 this year, when a new school year starts. The same will happen to secondary schools next year. By 2016, the implementation of the subject could be made compulsory.
Yesterday’s rally is the latest development of an ongoing anti-national education campaign triggered by reports in early July of a booklet China Model that describes China’s ruling party as ‘progressive, selfless, and united’ while criticising multi-party systems as bringing disasters to countries such as the United States. The Hong Kong National Education Services Centre, the organisation that produced the booklet, received around $8 million from the government between 2008 and last year.
The government quickly stopped subsidising the centre and distanced itself from the booklet. However, many Hong Kong citizens still believe that the booklet or the pro-Communist messages it tries to deliver would be the basis of the subject and they fear the city’s impressionable youths would hence be ‘brainwashed’.
“The Communist party wants to make Hong Kong red,” says Ken Chou Kin-wai, a 28-year-old martial arts teacher. “We want our children to know facts about Chinese history and China’s reality. We don’t want them to love China blindly.”
On the other hand, Chan Chi-wa, a Liberal Studies teacher at SKH Leung Kwai Yee Secondary School, feels it's ‘pointless to guess the motive’ behind introducing the new subject. “National education itself has no problem,” he says. “It's a matter of how it is taught. I would emphasise on the moral and civic part of it.”
The Education Bureau urged protesting groups to ‘remain calm and unbiased’ and said it will not ask schools to give examinations or grade students’ performance in the subject. Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor also said the government has given ‘flexibility to schools’ to decide on when and how they teach the subject.
Yet the government is not likely to withdraw it, according to Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong. “The driving force to implement the subject comes from Beijing,” he says.
Cheng tells Time Out that he doubts anyone from the SAR government, the liaison office of the central government or the pro-establishment parties has done a proper job to let Beijing understand Hong Kong. “They only say positive things to please the central government,” he says. “I don’t think the central government understands why Hong Kong people are upset. It thought by pushing forward national education, it could fix everything.”
If that is the case, the reality has turned out to be far from expected.
On July 29, a reported number of 90,000 people participated in a protest against introducing the subject, followed by a series of other similar activities. On August 30, a students’ group started a three-day ‘occupy’ protest outside the government headquarters with three students on hunger strike throughout the protest.
A research conducted in mid-August by the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs Association of Hong Kong shows that over 60 percent, among 3,500 students and parents, worried that students could be ‘brainwashed’ by the subject, while all agreed that the curriculum should allow discussions on sensitive issues such as the Tiananmen Square massacre and food safety.
Dr Lam Wai-man, assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Politics and Public Administration, says the recent sentiment is ‘an outburst of accumulated dissatisfaction’ among Hong Kong people over a series of events related to human rights and freedom.
This March, after an unprecedentedly chaotic election campaign with reports of media self-censorship and allegedly heavy-handed intervention by Beijing’s liaison office here, Leung Chun-ying, whom many pro-democracy people deem as being too close to the Communist party, was selected as the SAR’s new Chief Executive by less than two percent of the city’s seven million residents.
On June 4 this year, the city’s annual memorial for the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests saw a second-highest number of participants over two decades. However, two days later, one of the most outspoken Tiananmen protesters died in Hunan province in the Mainland, half a month after being interviewed by a Hong Kong TV reporter. Li Wangyang’s death, although officially ruled as suicide by the Hunan government, has generated a lot of anger and suspicions in the SAR because of its unusual circumstances.
In August, the neighbouring Mainland city of Shenzhen announced a plan to allow its non-permanent residents to apply for multiple-entry visas to visit Hong Kong. Unprepared Hongkongers, who had never been consulted beforehand, suddenly found themselves facing an additional four million Mainland visitors starting this month. Last year, 28 millions of Mainland visitors, dubbed ‘locusts’ by some angry locals, came to the city. The plan has been delayed for more discussions between the central and the SAR governments.
“More and more, Hong Kong people have come to realise that their cultures and values are very different from the Mainland’s,” says Lam. “Now many of them have lost confidence in their own government’s ability to protect these values.” Thus, according to Lam, it is understandable that many citizens suspect the national education comes with a ‘brainwashing’ purpose.
Citing the city-wide support for the 'Diaoyu Islands defenders' as an example, Lam says most Hong Kong people are patriotic ‘in a broad sense’. “But they don’t necessarily love the [Communist] party,” she says. “Deng Xiaoping realised this, so he came up with the ‘one country, two systems’ policy. Unfortunately this policy has often been violated recently.”
According to the Parents Concern Group on National Education, it has contacted more than 350 primary schools and only six said they will introduce the national education subject in the forthcoming school year. Baptist Lui Ming Choi Primary School is one of the six. According to local media, the school claimed it will use its own textbooks and encourage objective discussions.
Leticia Lee See-yin, president of the Federation of Parent-Teacher Associations of Yau Tsim Mong District, says national education is necessary, although she also admits many parents in her district have contacted her to express their concerns over the subject.
“I encourage parents to spend time going through related textbooks and asking their children what has been taught in class,” says Lee. “If they notice anything wrong, they should make complaints to schools, PTAs or other concerned groups.” Shirley Zhao, photography by hongwrong.com