HONG KONG — In Hong Kong, demonstrations are escalating against the introduction of patriotism classes aimed at teaching school children history and the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party. Residents of the former British colony are fearful implementation of the curriculum signals China's intent to extend its control over the semi-autonomous city.
The first day of the Hong Kong school year ended Monday with 8,000 parents and children demonstrating outside government headquarters. Dressed head to toe in black, they were protesting the launch of a national education program in city schools.
The curriculum's objectives were outlined in a recent government-funded pamphlet entitled The China Model, which vaunts the Chinese Communist Party, glosses over events, including the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and describes multi-party democracy as malignant.
Patriotism classes begin
Although not mandatory until 2015, six junior schools began patriotism classes this week. Retired teacher James Hon is one of 10 members of the Alliance against National Education who vow to remain on a hunger strike until the pro-Beijing government cancels what they consider a program to "brainwash" school children.
"With the implementation of a brainwashing curriculum, our children will grow up like those in China who dare not speak their hearts, unable to distinguish right and wrong, who become blind patriots. That is what Hong Kong people are worried about," said Hon.
The city's number two administrator, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, disagrees with the criticism. She told a news conference that the curriculum's objectives are commendable and that fears of brainwashing are ill-founded.
"The question cannot be simplified to whether the government is prepared to withdraw this subject. The focus should be to ensure teaching will achieve its desired objective: to nurture our younger generation to have the right attitude toward their family, society, and [to] know about the country," said Lam.
Hong Kong residents dissent
Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Under the principle of "One Country, Two Systems," the city's 7 million residents enjoy social and political freedoms unknown elsewhere in China.
Professor Michael DeGolyer, of Hong Kong Baptist University, sees the national education issue affecting legislative elections being held on Sunday in Hong Kong. However, he cannot say whether national education classes could yet be scrapped. He insists the issue goes deeper than just this week's election, raising the specter of the period preceding Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty, when 10 percent of the population moved overseas fearful of life under communist rule.
"People were willing to take years out of their lives, and families were willing to be split apart in order to get the insurance of a foreign passport, just in case. That fire has been fully re-lit and it is not going to go out," said DeGolyer.
Late Monday night, crowds remained outside the steel skyscraper that is government headquarters. They called for government chief, Leung Chun-ying, to address them. Leung refused; instead inviting protesters Tuesday to join a committee to manage the curriculum’s implementation.
Two years after patriotism classes were first proposed by former government Chief Executive Donald Tsang, ordinary Hong Kong families insist they are prepared for a long battle. Protests in 2003 against similarly unpopular national security legislation ultimately helped topple the city's leadership.