HONG KONG — In a city that prides itself on being the most free-thinking outpost of China, a new, pro-Beijing education policy has people worried that their identity is coming under threat.
Last month, nearly 90,000 teachers, parents, and students flooded the streets to oppose a policy that will require all public-school students to take classes that promote “building national harmony” with mainland China.
The uproar was inflamed by news that the Hong Kong government spent $12 million to produce color pamphlets that hail the Communist Party as a “progressive, selfless, and united ruling group,” while characterizing American democracy as a “malignant party struggle” that brings “disaster to the people.” Thirty-thousand copies of the booklets were distributed to local schools this summer.
The government also sent more than 400 students this summer to visit the birthplace of Mao Zedong, where they received brochures extolling Mao’s “glorious life” as one who “sought the truth to save the country and citizens.”
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As the Hong Kong government doubles down on the education policy, locals fear that the goal is to eliminate precisely those qualities that make this city of 7 million unique.
“Hong Kong people are worried that they will only become another city in China,” says Ivan Choy, a political analyst at the Chinese University in Hong Kong. “People in Hong Kong always think that we are different from other cities in mainland China because we have human rights, diversity, and some kinds of freedoms. So people begin to worry that after 15 years of returning to China, China would not tolerate this kind of diversity any more.”
Since 1997, when Hong Kong joined mainland China after over 150 years as a British colony, the city-state has thrived under the “One Country, Two Systems” policy, which preserves Hong Kong’s civil liberties under a separate legal and political system.
As a result, it has also maintained something of a separate identity. While 95 percent of the population is ethnically Chinese, and the city’s economy is deeply dependent on the mainland, many Hong Kong people see themselves as upholding values missing in today’s China: human rights, the rule of law, freedom of the press and religion.
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In a recent poll, more residents called themselves Hong Kong citizens than citizens of China. Much of the population is descended from refugees who fled China after the Communist takeover in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.
So it is perhaps not surprising that many locals view attempts to foster love for the Communist Party in schools as almost an existential threat.
Parents have written angry letters and op-eds in local newspapers. The Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union has threatened to go on strike if officials move forward with the plan. Ho Zaak Lung, a fifth grader, told a local television station, “Textbooks that teach us wrong information force you to love the Party. It’s not that I can’t love my country, but really I can’t love the Party, because the Party is horrible,” according to a translation by China Digital Times.
Even Helen Yu, the former education chief of Hong Kong from 1996-1998, criticized the policy, saying that “the mark of true love of, or loyalty to, country is not synonymous with endorsing (far less ‘loving') the ruling party or the government in power,” in an op-ed for the South China Morning Post
This anger is fed partly by suspicions that Hong Kong’s new chief executive, C.Y. Leung, is quietly pursuing a pro-Beijing agenda. Professor Choy says that many people believe that Leung will not only try to make education more “patriotic,” but also rein in public radio and television stations that often criticize mainland China. As a result, Leung’s disapproval ratings are already above 45 percent.
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Nevertheless, the government seems intent on pressing forward. Recent commentary in the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the China Daily, has called the threatened teachers’ strike in Hong Kong “outrageous,” and argued that the patriotic curriculum “covers all the mainstream values cherished by people around the world.” An editorial cartoon in the same paper shows the teachers’ union as running over the side of a cliff.
And in the South China Morning Post, a member of one of Beijing’s major legislative bodies, warned that Hong Kong’s intransigence will only cause a backlash from the central government, comparing the populist outrage to McCarthyism and Nazism.
“If Hong Kong continues along its present pathetic path, no matter what happens on the mainland, it will bode ill for Hong Kong,” writes Lau Nai-keung. “It is up to Hongkongers to collectively steer clear of disaster.”
Choy is not so sure that now is the time to back down.
“I think the Hong Kong people should have the ability to express their voice. At this moment, I cannot say I think it will cause a harder line from Beijing authorities,” he says. “But we will have to wait and see.”