Tensions are flaring in the Chinese territory over a government push to introduce pro-China patriotism classes in the city’s schools, just as Hong Kong is preparing to take its next step toward full democracy.
On Friday night, tens of thousands of protesters, many young and clad in black – a symbol of their united opposition to the new curriculum – gathered outside government offices. Organisers said 120,000 people participated, while police estimates put the number at 36,000.
Hong Kong is witnessing some of its biggest anti-Beijing protests in recent history over the Beijing-backed education plan, which aims to create student identification with mainland China. Many locals say the effort amounts to brainwashing.
The issue is expected to energise voters and boost the numbers heading to the polls this Sunday to elect a legislature – the first time the majority of seats will be chosen by a public poll, said Michael DeGolyer, who directs the Hong Kong Transition Project, which tracks public views toward government.
Questions remain, however, over how well the city’s fractured opposition camp – which advocates faster and broader democratic change – will be able to capitalise on anti-Beijing sentiment in the coming vote.
The administration of Leung, a close Beijing ally, said this week in a concession to protesters, that it is willing to consider all proposals in discussions, including the possibility of delaying the mandatory start of the patriotism curriculum beyond 2015, and even the possibility that ir could be dropped.
Sunday’s election marks an important step as the city moves toward eventually allowing its citizens to directly elect their leader and all legislators. Previously, the legislature was split between directly elected seats and those filled by so-called functional constituencies, which represent sectors largely stacked with pro-Beijing interests. Some 287 candidates representing numerous parties will compete to fill 70 seats.
Beijing hopes a successfully integrated Hong Kong can serve as a model for reunification with democratic Taiwan.
During Hong Kong’s last legislative election four years ago, residents were feeling more warmly toward Beijing, and proud of China’s role as Olympic host. This time around, the widespread protests are likely to create unease in Beijing and leave the city’s pro-Beijing camp, which dominates the city’s legislature, caught in the middle.
Anti-China sentiment has been building throughout the year in Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997, but continues to maintain its own political system and fierce sense of identity.
Many locals complain about the influx of mainlanders, whom they accuse of pushing up property prices to unaffordable levels, and taking up health resources by choosing to give birth here.
The education issue, though, has struck the deepest chord recently, with 90,000 students, parents, grandparents and teachers marching in July to protest the effort to create the so-called “moral and national education” curriculum. A handful of schools this semester will begin the new courses on a voluntary basis.
Protesters were galvanised in July by news that the government has subsidised trips for local schoolchildren to visit Mao Zedong’s birthplace in Hunan and an educational booklet that praised China’s one-party state as “progressive, selfless and united.”
Friday’s throng of demonstrators joined nearly a dozen hunger strikers who have been camped at the government offices over the past week. At least 50 tents pitched outside. Scores of teenagers are staying at the site nightly. Well-wishers have been delivering daily donations that include cakes, fruit and toothpaste.
“I don’t want our next generation to be brainwashed,” said James Hon Lin-Shan, 63 years old, a retired teacher who is among the hunger strikers. He has been fasting for more than 120 hours.
The school curriculum plan was launched in 2010 by the city’s former chief executive, Donald Tsang. It followed a speech by Chinese President Hu Jintao in which he exhorted the city’s children to learn more about the “great tradition of loving the motherland.”
The controversy over the issue has hurt the popularity of the new leader of the city, Leung Chun-ying, a close Beijing ally, who was chosen in March by a largely pro-Beijing election committee. An August 14-18 poll of 1,019 voters by the University of Hong Kong showed the number of respondents expressing confidence in him fell to 36%, from 49 percent in June. The margin of error is 3%.
Category: Hong Kong