23 February 2019
Weeks of protests in 2012 saw the Hong Kong government back down over plans to force schoolchildren to take Chinese patriotism classes. Photo: HKEJ
Weeks of protests in 2012 saw the Hong Kong government back down over plans to force schoolchildren to take Chinese patriotism classes. Photo: HKEJ

Why Beijing is talking patriotic education ahead of election

Hong Kong delegates to the last “twin sessions” received their newest marching orders: Go to school campuses and promote national education.

The edict from China’s highest political consultative body came after Premier Li Keqiang and the National People’s Congress standing committee for the first time stressed their determination to stamp out calls for Hong Kong independence.

The idea is to teach patriotism in schools to counter a growing pro-independence mindset. 

The new order by Beijing is its first direct intervention in the policy, shelved since 2012 after mass protests by students and parents opposed to its implementation.

Immediately after the order went out, Eva Chan, convenor of the National Education Parents’ Concern Group, called on the three candidates for chief executive to state their positions on the matter.

“Every candidate should answer this question … whether they agree to add political education or patriotic education to the Hong Kong school curriculum,” she said.

But in their first public debate on Tuesday, Carrie Lam, John Tsang and Woo Kwok-hing did not touch on the subject. The three owe the public their views on such a sensitive issue.

It’s not surprising that Beijing is putting patriotic education at the top of its agenda. It wants the next Hong Kong leader to resolutely implement it. Beijing might leave the manner of its implementation to the next chief executive but it is keen to see it done.    

Political observers say Carrie Lam could be the one to carry out the order by putting it high on her agenda, with additional budget to fund delegates to visit local schools.

John Tsang, given his style of focusing on localism rather than patriotism, might handle it in a more low-profile manner so as not to create political turbulence and divide society even more.

From Beijing’s perspective, asking the Hong Kong delegates to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) to promote patriotism in local schools is a duty. But to Hong Kong Kong parents, such arrangement is a way of politicizing schools.

In fact, the current curriculum is more than enough to promote the Communist Party in Hong Kong. The addition of the CPPCC delegates’ visits are an attempt by Beijing to intervene in the education of Hong Kong youths.

Education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen described the visits as a propaganda mission.

“This is a bit alarming because it has become a kind of political mission. Its aim is not educational; the aim is to instill a kind of ideology or kind of ideas to students.”

While the candidates did lay down their programs on education, these were mostly about spending more money. Lam said she will spend an additional HK$5 billion a year on education; Tsang said he will use the money to professionalize the education policy.

Neither would say how they will stop politics from seeping into the school system.

Leung Chun-ying’s administration has been proactively echoing Beijing’s policy on education.

For example, in his policy address in January, Leung put additional resources to enhance cooperation and exchanges with countries and regions along the Belt and Road, as well as train teachers to educate primary and secondary students about Chinese civilization.

The Hong Kong government is also encouraging local kindergartens to teach national education and Putonghua to children aged three to five.

Against this backdrop, Beijing is making sure national education will get the highest priority by announcing its intentions with less than two weeks before the March 26 chief executive election.

That means the next chief executive can do nothing but carry out its bidding.

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EJ Insight writer

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