14 November 2018
Christine Choi is a strong advocate of national education and Mandarin as a medium of instruction. Photo: China Daily
Christine Choi is a strong advocate of national education and Mandarin as a medium of instruction. Photo: China Daily

What a red educator’s appointment tells us

Five years after the government abandoned the patriotic education curriculum in local schools, Hong Kong parents are on alert for another round of red education after Chief Executive Carrie Lam appointed pro-Beijing figure Christine Choi as undersecretary for education on Tuesday.

The move could signal Lam’s intention to push patriotic education at all levels from kindergarten.

It does not come cheap for Lam. According to the latest figures from the Public Opinion Program of the University of Hong Kong, Lam’s popularity rating has fallen by 5.2 points to 58.5 compared with early July. Her approval rate is 50 percent and disapproval rate 35 percent, giving a net popularity of positive 15 percentage points.

While Lam’s first-month performance won praise from the opposition due to her friendly approach, her popularity took a tumble after the High Court’s decision to disqualify four lawmakers over the oath taking fiasco in October.

Now, Choi’s appointment is drawing fierce criticism reminiscent of the anger directed at Lam’s predecessor, Leung Chun-ying, over his more controversial actions.

Hours before her appointment was announced, Choi resigned from her position as vice chairwoman of the pro-Beijing Federation of Education Workers. She is also headmaster of the pro-Beijing Fukien Secondary School.

Choi has previously worked in the education department. From a professional perspective, her resume is suitable for undersecretary of the education bureau to assist bureau chief Kevin Yeung in assessing front-line teachers’ needs.

With such a professional background, Choi was supposed to be a good candidate for the post. But Choi is so controversial more than 17,000 people signed a petition objecting to her appointment.

Many Hong Kong people still remember that Choi was responsible for making a controversial teaching material on patriotic education for local schools five years ago, praising the Communist Party of China as progressive, selfless and solid. Such statement did not quite reflect the truth.

When the teaching material was reported by the local media, it was discovered that Choi and the National Education Services Center used government money to produce the material. Choi’s pro-Beijing political stance was now out in the open. Central Central Television interviewed her last month about her experience in pushing patriotic education in Hong Kong.

If Choi didn’t have the support of Beijing, she could not have been appointed to such a senior position given that she has no experience in public administration. The government urged the public and the opposition to give her time to show her capability for the job.

But why does the position need someone with a red background?

In June, Lam said she would step up national education to nurture a sense of Chinese identity among the youth from as early as kindergarten in a bid to counter a pro-independence mindset.

Lam also said affection for Hong Kong and a sense of national identity are not mutually exclusive. The government will encourage children to learn more about Hong Kong’s history, culture, politics and social development and at the same time nurture their national identity. In fact, her statement echoed those of state leaders who want Hong Kong to promote patriotism in schools.

That said, the appointment of Choi is just part of a game plan by Beijing to strengthen the implementation of patriotic education. Hong Kong parents may have forced the government to abandon the plan to launch a national education subject five years ago but now they are learning that it is embedded in different subjects and in a wide range of activities. For example, primary school students made two-day trips to China under the sponsorship of pro-Beijing organizations as part of an exchange program.

The new administration bears responsibility for promoting patriotism among Hong Kong’s young people as a way to combat the independent mindset. That’s the reason Hong Kong parents and students are worried about Choi’s appointment. It’s not Choi herself but the government’s potential plan to extend the scope of the curriculum to children as young as three years old that worries them.

Choi is also an advocate of the use of Mandarin in schools while most Hong Kong children speak Cantonese, which could potentially create a communication gap between schools and families. The push for Mandarin over English and Cantonese is a matter of political consideration.

Now that her appointment is in effect, Choi will be closely monitored by the public. Parents will pay closer attention to the teaching materials of their children to prevent them from being quietly brainwashed.

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EJ Insight writer

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