19 November 2019
China's ruling Communist Party has a great interest in getting Hong Kong's education system to serve its interests. Photos: Bloomberg, GovHK
China's ruling Communist Party has a great interest in getting Hong Kong's education system to serve its interests. Photos: Bloomberg, GovHK

Why is the education bureau coy about talks in Beijing?

The Secretary for Education Eddie Ng has, yet again, been to Beijing, this time with a posse of local university chiefs who have signed up for alliance with mainland universities in the Chinese capital.

At least this visit was not shrouded in the kind of secrecy that has surrounded meetings between his department and the mainland’s education ministry. This raises the question of if there is nothing to hide and nothing sinister why does Ng’s department refuse to reveal what was discussed?

The ministry was far less coy and issued a report in January stating that the Hong Kong and Macau governments were expected to “fully implement various tasks assigned by the central government in respect of educational work” in the two SARs.

As ever the details of these tasks have not been revealed but the folk who run the local education bureau have tried to keep these meetings under wraps.

Kevin Yeung Yun-hung, who is expected to replace the hapless Eddie Ng as education secretary, told skeptical legislators that recent changes to the curriculum “are completely our own work. It was our own initiative and had nothing to do with the ministry. It was our conscious decision to strengthen Basic Law education.”

This is what’s known as plausible deniability because it is highly likely that the Chinese side did not specify how patriotic or so-called national education should be ramped up but it is equally likely that this demand was on the table and that the Hong Kong officials were left to work out the details.

How meetings to discuss education policy can possibly be considered as not breaching the principle of non-interference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs is a total mystery but that principle is now in tatters and gets tattier by the day.

The constant battering of Hong Kong’s fragile autonomy sometimes leads people to be blasé about things like this but it is vital to remember the importance of retaining the integrity and independence of Hong Kong’s education system precisely because the Chinese Communist Party has such a great interest in getting the education system to serve its interests.

One thing that China’s Communists and the Jesuits have in common is that they are among the world’s most successful indoctrinators and they both have an acute appreciation of the necessity to start that indoctrination as early as possible.

Everyone knows of the famous and sinister Jesuit boast: “Give me the child for his first seven years, and I’ll give you the man.” China’s Communists have demonstrated no less enthusiasm for molding young minds at an early age and for devising an education system that serves this objective.

Over the border the level of indoctrination is relentless. Indeed there is evidence that it is so overwhelming that many attempts at indoctrination have become counterproductive due the level of repetition.

But in Hong Kong, Beijing officials were handling education with kid gloves until mass protests thwarted plans for introducing compulsory patriotic education in local schools.

That setback, if anything, doubled their determination to bring schools into line but the preferred way of doing this has been to have the local functionaries do the heavy lifting.

Unfortunately for Beijing, the chosen front man for this task, Eddie Ng, has proved to be not merely incompetent but also to be so intellectually challenged as to have become a laughing stock. Whether Kevin Yeung turns out to be any better remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the government is taking baby steps in classrooms by introducing 51 hours of Basic Law education for the youngest junior secondary school students. It is a subject likely to get the heart of every student racing.

In many ways this looks suspiciously like a backdoor way to smuggle in the shelved national education program. There should be no illusion about the wider patriotic education scheme disappearing from the agenda.

Meanwhile, in universities, the purge and blocking of advancement for academics who speak up against the party line continues apace.

Frankly, Hong Kong’s education system, with its worrying emphasis on examinations, is in need of reform but the government has little concern over these basic matters. It has been tasked with making local schools edge close to their mainland counterparts where no child emerges from the system without a thorough dousing in party propaganda.

Predictably the rich and powerful who spout the party line often and loudly are rather more quietly busying themselves with the task of ensuring that their children get their education overseas – this includes the offspring of the current and pending chief executive and practically everyone else you can think of who scurries to elbow their way into the frontline when Beijing seeks endorsement of its policies.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author