Hong Kong’s chief executive says the government will move ahead with its plan to implement a “national education” school curriculum, despite protests calling the Beijing-encouraged policy “brainwashing.”
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has offered more consultations with parents after as many as 90,000 people protested against the plans on Sunday. But he has ruled out any delays in rolling out the policy, which requires all primary and secondary schools to teach mandatory civic education classes by 2016.
Leung’s message is that the central government would like to strengthen Hong Kong’s sense of identification with China through this project.
Suspicions over government motives
Despite government assurances, many teachers and parents are concerned the curriculum would force the schools to teach Chinese communist propaganda.
“Behind these protests, there is deep suspicion about what the Hong Kong government and, in fact, the central government want to do,” said Joseph Cheng of Hong Kong University.
Sunday’s protest is the latest sign of growing public discontent with Beijing's perceived interference in city affairs, 15 years after it reverted to China from British control.
“The people’s hearts have not returned,“ according to Cheng. He cites a survey last week by the University of Hong Kong that found only 12% of respondents polled want the curriculum implemented on schedule, while 52% want it shelved and 30% have no opinion.
The government wants elementary schools to adopt the classes on a voluntary basis for a three-year trial period before making them compulsory in 2015.
Hong Kong’s deputy leader, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, responded to Sunday's protest by announcing the formation of a committee to monitor the implementation of the classes.
Civics or propaganda?
Lam counters concerns about the curriculum as propaganda. Instead, she says students would be educated to have independent thought, to be able to analyze situations and come to objective conclusions following the courses.
“I’m sure she really means what she says,” said Christine Loh, chief executive officer of the Hong Kong-based research group, Civic Exchange.
The debate, according to Loh, is more about who will write the curriculum. She says some schools believe they can write their own curriculum, that they don’t need the government to do it.
“A number of schools have spoken out to say they have strong values. They feel they should be able to decide what curriculum they are going to teach,” said Loh.
The real issue is the matter of trust. According to the University of Hong Kong’s Cheng, the protests are an expression about a growing concern with China’s influence in Hong Kong’s affairs.
“Hong Kong’s people are not happy with the blatent interference by the central authorities during the election of the chief executive in March of this year,” Cheng said.
He says that concern also extends to a perception that a pro-Beijing attitude is becoming more evident in Hong Kong’s media.
“There’s a perception that the central authorities are not happy with the radio and television of Hong Kong,” Cheng said. “The result is that there has been increased self-censorship the media’s criticism of the government,” said Cheng.
Hong Kong's democratic tradition
Loh says the protest movement in Hong Kong has the potential to be sustained and that the government will have to deal with its effects.
“I think the issue of democracy has never really left Hong Kong. People have always had the sense that they could choose their own government,” said Loh.
Trusting Hong Kong’s leaders, and as an extension, Beijing’s leaders on the matter of school curriculum goes to a bigger question.
“I think everybody understands that because Hong Kong is a part of China, the direction and timetable for democratic reform is dependent on Beijing’s support,” said Loh.
Cheung doesn't expect such massive protests to become routine in Kong Kong. He said legislative council elections are scheduled September 9, and voter discontent may be manifested in that election.
Victor Beattie contributed to this report.