19 May 2019
Hong Kong's Education Bureau, led by Kevin Yeung Yun-hung, is facing criticism after news that the department had asked publishers to change some wording in Chinese history textbooks. Photo: HKEJ
Hong Kong's Education Bureau, led by Kevin Yeung Yun-hung, is facing criticism after news that the department had asked publishers to change some wording in Chinese history textbooks. Photo: HKEJ

Why the govt move on history textbooks is uncalled for

The Education Bureau (EDB) has recently demanded that school textbook publishers change some commonly-used phrases in Chinese history textbooks, citing the need to remove “inappropriate wording”.

The EDB’s decision has baffled not only the general public but also many seasoned educators.

Among the “problematic” sentences and phrases pointed out by the EDB is “Hong Kong is located o the south of China”, a description widely adopted by school textbook publishers in the city for years.

According to Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung, the wording of this sentence is “inappropriate” because it could give rise to various interpretations that Hong Kong is lying to the south “either within or outside” Chinese territory.

He insisted that the existing wording must be changed in order to avoid confusion.

That, in our view, automatically begs the question: does Yeung’s explanation also apply to other southern mainland cities such as Guangzhou?

Should textbook publishers also from now on refer to Guangzhou in such a redundant and awkward way as “a city lying within the southern territory of China”?

As the EDB is suddenly requiring textbook publishers to put extra emphasis on Hong Kong being part of China, it has aroused widespread suspicions that the move was aimed at toeing Beijing’s line of zero-tolerance to separatism.

In our view, the description that “Hong Kong is located to the south of China” is so simple and crystal clear that it is beyond any dispute and distortion. We just can’t find anything wrong about it.

As such, the only thing we can tell from the EDB’s absurd demand is that our overly sensitive government bureaucrats are making things unnecessarily complicated just because they want to play it safe.

Another example is “China insisted on taking back the sovereignty of Hong Kong”.

According to Secretary Yeung, this commonly adopted description is inappropriate too because, as he has put it, China has always had sovereignty over our city, therefore there is no question of “taking back”.

Again, we feel compelled to take issue with Yeung on this. It is because first, when Hong Kong was ceded to Britain in the 19th century, the People’s Republic of China didn’t even exist.

Then second, the preamble of the Basic Law says very clearly that under the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, the PRC would “resume” the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong with effect from July 1, 1997, suggesting that China’s sovereignty over the city did see a period of interruption.

Besides, over the years, our Beijing leaders have frequently used the phrase “take back the sovereignty of Hong Kong” on countless occasions, which indicates that there is nothing wrong with this depiction even in the eyes of our state leaders.

Therefore, we just can’t see any justification for the government to become suddenly so nitpicking over the common description of “taking back the sovereignty of Hong Kong”.

The EDB only has itself to blame. It is because this unnecessary controversy could have been totally avoided if the government hadn’t highly politicized things so much so it has given the public an impression that it was eagerly going to extreme lengths to please Beijing.

Director of the Beijing Liaison Office, Wang Zhimin, said on Monday at an annual Legco luncheon that the mainland people are happy with their own existing system as the people of Hong Kong are with theirs, so “why would you want us to change?”

Vice versa, we believe director Wang’s logic applies to our school textbooks as well.

As a matter of fact, the essence of “One Country Two Systems” lies in the fact that both Beijing and Hong Kong wouldn’t interfere in the domestic affairs of each other.

Given this, we believe it is definitely unnecessary for our administration to keep second-guessing Beijing on virtually every issue or impose self-censorship on teaching materials used in our schools. Otherwise, we would be not only violating our principles but also provoking unnecessary controversies.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 24

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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