Keen on following Beijing’s policy direction, the Hong Kong government led by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has worked out the details of a HK$1 billion scholarship program for local students to visit countries in the “One Belt, One Road” region.
However, since Leung unveiled the plan in his policy address in January, it remains unclear how the program, which is funded by taxpayers’ money, will contribute to Hong Kong’s development, other than to show his administration’s political loyalty to his Beijing bosses.
Earlier this week, the government’s Committee on the Promotion of Civic Education issued guidelines on how the scholarship program will be implemented.
Each qualified project will be granted a maximum of two-thirds of its total expenditure, or no more than HK$300,000.
Students participating in the program will be given a daily grant of up to HK$476 for those visiting mainland China and up to HK$1,360 for trips to the Middle East and Western Asia, including Afghanistan, Iran and Mongolia.
The government will also sponsor trips to conflict zones such as Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel, at HK$680 a day for each student.
Non-profit organizations and statutory bodies are encouraged to organize trips to Belt and Road countries.
In order to achieve the goals of what is envisioned to be an exchange program, the government listed down the themes for projects seeking the funding. These include:
1. Promoting understanding of the Belt and Road initiative, which is a significant strategy of our country’s future development, among the youth in Hong Kong;
2. Enabling youngsters to think about the roles that individuals, and Hong Kong as a whole, can play to help in the country’s development; and
3. Helping them grasp the opportunities and challenges arising from the Belt and Road initiative.
Government scholarship is an important aspect of academic development as it helps in ensuring a steady supply of future professionals and leaders in any jurisdiction.
One example is the Chevening Scholarship, which enables “future leaders, influencers and decision-makers from all over the world” to pursue postgraduate studies in the United Kingdom to help them “develop professionally and academically” as well as “network extensively”.
It is hoped that through the scholarship, these future leaders will maintain their good relationship with the UK.
However, in the case of CY Leung’s Belt and Road scholarship scheme, political consideration is given more value than the participants’ career or professional development.
Under the program, participants are required to promote the Belt and Road initiative as well as to think how they can personally advance the policy in their individual capacity.
According to the guidelines, the purpose is to help “our young people understand better that the issues ranging from their academic studies, career and personal development to the future development of Hong Kong are all closely related to our country’s ‘Belt and Road’ policy”.
In effect, the program wants to instill in the minds of the participating students that their academic and professional development — in fact, their future — is inextricably linked to the fulfillment of the goals of the Belt and Road policy.
If this is a sort of brainwashing of our youth, then whoever drafted the guidelines for this scholarship program, who said that the participants must serve as advocates of the Belt and Road policy, must have been brainwashed themselves.
The guidelines exaggerate the importance of Hong Kong and the Belt and Road countries, as well as their relationship with each other.
The Hong Kong economy is based on the city’s role as an international financial services center as well as a platform for investors to tap the China market.
Those who go through Hong Kong’s education system are provided with the skills and training to contribute to that role.
The countries covered by China’s Belt and Road initiative are not active trading partners of Hong Kong, so how can Hong Kong students expect to have a bright and prosperous future by riding on the promises of the policy?
Probably, there is no right or wrong way for the government to spend the HK$1 billion in relation to the Belt and Road initiative.
But the problem with this scholarship program is that the government, by dangling financial assistance, is trying to intrude into the independence of Hong Kong’s education system.
In the first place, is the Belt and Road initiative the only opportunity for China and Hong Kong to tap emerging markets?
Why should the activities under the scholarship program encourage students to think about their role in advancing the Belt and Road policy, rather than just understanding, say, the workings of a globalized economy?
With the way the guidelines of the scholarship program have been devised, participating students cannot even raise questions or doubts about the wisdom of the Belt and Road policy, or about its possible negative impact on Hong Kong?
Some Hong Kong youngsters may want to apply for scholarship under the program to visit war zones in the Middle East or try to better understand Islamic fundamentalism. Would that be allowed under the program?
So it’s not surprising that the scholarship program has drawn flak from local politicians, who note that the government is using public funds to support countries in the Belt and Road region to advance Beijing’s goals, rather than promote Hong Kong’s interests.
It is also interesting to note that China itself is restructuring its economy to make domestic consumption its main engine of growth, and has only talked about the Belt and Road policy, not as a major component of its economic reform but more as a way to widen its geopolitical influence in the world.
That shows that Beijing itself doesn’t believe that the Belt and Road initiative will be a major contributor to its economic growth.
And so it seems the Belt and Road scholarship program is only meant as a tool to assist Beijing authorities in brainwashing our students to strictly follow the Beijing mindset, or at least to recognize Beijing’s diplomatic initiatives with regard to the Belt and Road region.
Hong Kong’s education sector should stand up and denounce this politicalization of the academic system.
What we should develop is not a citizenry that blindly abides by Beijing’s dictates but people who, equipped with critical thinking, can decide what’s good or bad for them.
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