Some 90,000 Hong Kong citizens, many of them parents accompanied by small children, marched in blazing heat Sunday to oppose a government plan to teach respect for one-party rule in all government-funded schools. So far the administration of newly inaugurated Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying refuses to back down. Officials in Beijing insist the courses go ahead, a serious violation of Hong Kong’s autonomy and a move that could alienate Hong Kong from the motherland.
Chinese President Hu Jintao called for “more emphasis on national education” in 2007, and the territory’s government has paid lip service to the idea. But concrete plans only got underway in the last two years. The sudden urgency is clearly related to the passage of political reforms in 2010 that allow for elections by universal suffrage for the Chief Executive in 2017 and Legislative Council in 2020.
The courses, which will start on a voluntary basis next month and become mandatory in 2015, are designed to inculcate love of country and respect for Communist Party rule – and conflate the two. A teaching booklet commissioned by the government and entitled “The China Model” calls the ruling party a “progressive, selfless, and united ruling group.” It praises China’s system as “close to the ideal type of government that social scientists aspire to.” In contrast, the US multiparty system “creates endless inter-party feuds that bring disaster to the people.”
The government has tried to mollify critics by promising that teachers will have the freedom to teach the course as they like and there will be no exams. But students (and schools) will be evaluated with a questionnaire that includes questions such as whether they buy Chinese products or “support China even when China does wrong.” Pro-democracy politicians suspect that the goal is to produce future voters who will support candidates endorsed by Beijing.
If so, it is backfiring just like proposed legislation to curtail civil liberties in 2003, when more than half a million Hong Kong people protested. Ironically, that eruption may be the true origin of the Communist Party’s indoctrination push. Incensed pro-Beijing scholars criticised the local population as too unpatriotic to be trusted with universal suffrage. A state-owned newspaper in the territory opined, “Only when universal suffrage would return [candidates] loving China and loving Hong Kong can we have it.”
Actually many pro-Beijing politicians understand that brain-washing classes bring back bad memories of the Cultural Revolution and other campaigns that drove waves of political refugees to Hong Kong. They are worried that the controversy hurts their chances in Legislative Council elections next month. Even members of Leung’s cabinet are backing away.
But Beijing is standing firm. In the middle of last month, Hong Kong Education Secretary Eddie Ng Hak-kim made a secret trip to Beijing to consult with the Education Ministry. After news of his visit leaked, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor called it a “courtesy call” and blamed a “misunderstanding” – which is utterly dubious given the government’s strict procedures on gazetting even more minor officials’ trips.
The local media soon figured out that Ng was getting his marching orders to carry forward national education. The central government’s top official on Hong Kong affairs Wang Guangya also summoned pro-Beijing legislators to Shenzhen for a pep talk to support the chief executive’s agenda.
This effort to impose one-party conformity on Hong Kong politics will continue to blow up in Beijing’s face. The middle class and youth are being pushed toward the opposition. Meanwhile Leung’s popularity is shockingly low considering he has been in office one month, with 41 percent supporting him and 45 percent disapproving. And a mere 37 percent of local people are proud of being Chinese, the lowest since 2001.
The more Beijing demands allegiance without acknowledging the rights of its citizens in Hong Kong, the less allegiance it will get.