16 September 2019
In this 2012 file picture, thousands of parents and students take to the streets to protest a planned national curriculum. Photo: HKEJ
In this 2012 file picture, thousands of parents and students take to the streets to protest a planned national curriculum. Photo: HKEJ

National education: If you can sniff it, it’s there

Is Beijing using the backdoor to introduce a national education curriculum in Hong Kong?

The answer is yes, judging by recent incremental moves by the Hong Kong government to inject patriotic education into schools.

How else can one explain the latest effort by Liaison Office chief Zhang Xiaoming to “prioritize the study of Chinese history” in Hong Kong?

Zhang’s edict is couched in patriotic language and does not instantly ring alarm bells. “Young people would better appreciate the richness of Chinese civilization, as well as the tremendous achievements made by the nation since 1949,” Zhang said.  

But flashback to July 2012 and it all comes into perspective. That was when thousands of parents and students took to the streets to protest a planned national curriculum for primary students, forcing the government to shelve the proposal.

But it’s not giving up the fight. 

In the latest move, the government plans to significantly increase the proportion of modern history in the Chinese history subject for junior secondary schools starting in September.

Reason: it wants to “strengthen” students’ knowledge of modern history to help them transition to a wider study of Chinese history in high school.

Officials argue that modern history is more relevant to students’ life experience and in enriching their knowledge of Chinese history.

That is a problem because half of the school curriculum is already allocated to modern Chinese history, particularly the post 1949 era, or after the communists took power.

Some education experts have been quick to dismiss this as an attempt to introduce Beijing-style patriotic education in Hong Kong.

They rightly worry that the curriculum will focus on communist image-building, rather than encourage critical thinking and in-depth study of Chinese history.

The Education Bureau is hard pressed to promote the idea to teachers, mindful that it could backfire.

But in a submission to the Legislative Council, the government merely reiterated the official line, saying “teaching modern Chinese history can help students accumulate adequate understanding of recent historical developments and have a shared memory, feeling and passion with their compatriots”.

That is in line with Beijing’s position that Hong Kong schools should promote patriotism and a sense of belonging.

The Hong Kong government envisions a curriculum that includes not only Chinese history in primary and secondary schools but also Chinese subjects in language, liberal studies and the arts.

Officials are adamant about reaching a “reasonable consensus” about “understanding our nation since the reunification with the mainland”.

Hong Kong students have been gradually receiving Beijing-style education relating to the national flag, Communist Party rule and Chinese national pride.

Also, the Hong Kong government has been promoting field trips to the mainland to encourage students to experience the motherland.

What they are not being told are the historic upheavals in the 1960s and 1970s, the bloody Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 and crippling censorship of negative news and ideas.

But Hong Kong students have the advantage of living in a freer society.

Sure, they can be plied with a patriotic potion but in the end, they will know when not to take any more of it.

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EJ Insight writer