26 March 2019
A Hong Kong protester waves the colonial flag during a pro-democracy rally. Photo: HKEJ
A Hong Kong protester waves the colonial flag during a pro-democracy rally. Photo: HKEJ

Beijing’s next target: Hong Kong education sector

A former senior Chinese official has called for urgent reforms in Hong Kong’s education sector so that the city’s youth will develop a positive attitude toward their motherland.

The remarks of Chen Zuo’er, a former deputy director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, shouldn’t come as a surprise as the pro-democracy Occupy campaign was led by schoolteachers and students who rallied against Beijing’s growing influence in the territory’s affairs.

It is clear that hand in hand with the central government’s insistence on keeping a tight rein on Hong Kong’s political life is its determination to gain control of the city’s educational sphere.

Chen could not believe that young people, who were just babies during the handover, were waving the British flag in protest actions and storming military camps and government buildings.

In his mind, the education sector has failed to provide the proper environment to raise good, law-abiding citizens.

Speaking at a seminar on Hong Kong youth in Beijing, Chen said the education minister should be subject to the central government’s scrutiny at all times.

He also said the city’s education policy makers should take national security and sovereignty into account in formulating their plans and programs.

What is surprising is that Education Minister Eddie Ng has not made any response to Chen’s remarks. Even his boss, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, has not issued any comments.

Does that mean that Chen shouldn’t be taken seriously as he is a retired official and only speaking his own mind?

Chen may be out of the official circle in Beijing, but considering that he spoke at a government-backed seminar, one can say that he is voicing out the view of the Communist Party’s top leaders on the subject of education.

Under the “one country, two systems” principle, Beijing shouldn’t be interfering in Hong Kong’s education affairs.

But the issue must be brought to the fore and discussed publicly. It now appears that the central government is using Chen to test the waters in Hong Kong before it officially calls on the local leadership to push for a national security legislation as provided for in the Basic Law and revive the highly controversial proposal for a moral and national education cirriculum.

Since the start of the Occupy campaign in late September, pro-Beijing politicians have been assailing the liberal atmosphere in the city’s universities and even secondary schools, accusing school officials of perpetuating a colonial mindset that persists long after the end of British sovereignty in the territory.

Some even blame the liberal studies subject in schools for fostering anti-China feelings and pro-democracy sentiments among students.

Chen, for his part, accused the city’s education system of producing “sweet gourd” and “toxic beans”. He said “noxious weeds” must be eradicated to let “green shoots” grow.

It is clear that China wants Hong Kong schools to adopt the Beijing-recommended national education curriculum to help develop a citizenry that is patriotic and loyal to the Communist Party. 

But winning the hearts and minds of Hong Kong people may take more than that. In fact, another attempt to revive the controversial national education curriculum may only stoke anti-Beijing sentiments.

Hong Kong is an international city enjoying the free flow of information and press freedom. Students are very much aware of what is happening around them, including those across the border. Whether they will come to respect and abide by the communist rule will depend on the realities of that rule, not what they are told about it in classrooms. 

As a matter of fact, Chinese students are coming to Hong Kong to gain deeper insight into China while enjoying academic freedom.

According to the Basic Law, the Hong Kong enjoys a high degree of autonomy, and Beijing will only have direct control of the city’s military and foreign affairs.

But the reality is that Beijing wants to control everything in the former British colony, from the ownership of strategic assets such as public utilities, telecommunications and media, to the development of the stock market.

Beijing has drawn up the roadmap for Hong Kong’s political development, further diminishing the city’s autonomy 17 years after its return to Chinese sovereignty.

Academic freedom is one of the core values that Hong Kong people cherish and jealously protect. Should Beijing’s hand be seen working in the education sector, its impact on Hong Kong’s reputation as an international city and autonomous society will be much more significant than that of political intervention.

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EJ Insight writer

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