Academics and students join rally against ‘patriotic’ studies in schools

Professors and students joined a major Hong Kong rally last Sunday against the imposition of ‘national education’ about China in secondary schools, saying it could have a detrimental impact on the entire education system including universities, if allowed to take hold.

The big turnout on Sunday’s rally surprised many.

It consisted mainly of school children and their parents, but a large contingent from universities joined them to protest that the authorities wanted to ‘brainwash’ children by teaching them party ‘propaganda’ from mainland China.

“A group of university academics came out to protest, and appealed to others to join in,” said Joseph Cheng Yu-Shek, professor of politics at Hong Kong’s City University (CityU), who said he was among those who joined the protest.

“It was actually much larger in scale than expected,” he told University World News. The organisers anticipated 10,000 people and claimed that nine times that figure turned out, although the official police figure was nearer to 30,000.

Whatever the numbers, it was still a large protest by Hong Kong standards and an indication of the strength of feeling throughout the education system about ‘national education’, which is set to be compulsory in primary schools in 2015 and secondary schools in 2016.

Teaching begins in some schools from September – but some have said they will boycott it.

University fears

Some academics said they feared that ‘patriotic education’ could be imposed on universities as well, as is the case in mainland China where it is compulsory in schools and universities.

“In China, schools and universities have compulsory courses in ‘patriotic education’, communist ideology and so on. These courses are highly ideological in orientation, with not much room for discussion and debate. University students on the mainland hate these courses,” said CityU’s Cheng.

However, others dismissed this as unlikely, as Hong Kong’s universities have a tradition of autonomy, unlike those on the mainland, which are controlled by the Communist Party.

“There’s no such inclination at all [on the part of the authorities],” Cheng Kai-Ming, a professor of education at Hong Kong University (HKU), told University World News. “Any attempt [to impose it on universities] would unleash even greater protests.”

It is still unclear whether the ‘national education’ being proposed for Hong Kong will be similar to ‘patriotic education’ in China.

Some academics and teachers doubted that they could be taught the same way, as Hong Kong has had a more open political system as a result of British Colonial rule, which ended in 1997, and Hong Kong teachers did not go through ‘patriotic education’ as university students.

Controversial teaching booklet

The current discontent was sparked in particular by the recent publication of a 35-page booklet, The China Model, intended to be a guide for teachers. It has been sent by the Hong Kong Education Department to all publicly funded schools.

The booklet controversially praises one-party rule, and derides multiparty democracy, describing China’s centralised power structure as able to create ‘selfless government’ that promotes stability in the country.

It includes pictures of smiling Chinese President Hu Jintao visiting farmers in Henan province, and a member of the People’s Liberation Army offering medicines to people in Africa.

It omits any mention of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. In Hong Kong, students hold vigils and protests on the anniversary of the 4 June crackdown on student-led protests in Beijing in 1989. These protests are banned on the mainland.

“This booklet has ignited the flames” of Hong Kong protest, said HKU’s Cheng, adding: “It’s a very good example of very bad content.” But he predicted that “no one will use this booklet to teach any course”.

Sunday’s protest was “a mixture of political confrontation and technical resistance by teachers who do not know how to teach it. There is no tradition in Hong Kong of teaching something controversial like this.”

Hong Kong’s Secretary for Education Eddie Ng admitted in early July that the materials were “problematic” and should not be used, as a row blew up over Hong Kong public funding going towards what the teachers’ union said was “propaganda from China”.

Even Leung Yan-wing, associate director of the Hong Kong Institute of Education’s Centre for Governance and Citizenship, who had a hand in developing the teaching materials, believes national education does not need to be a separate subject in schools but can be delivered as part of civic education, according to a report in the South China Morning Post.

HKBU controversy

The content is so controversial that Hong Kong Baptist University’s (HKBU’s) Faculty and Staff Union criticised the university’s Advanced Institute for Contemporary China studies for its involvement in producing The China Model.

An assistant professor at HKBU, To Yiu-Ming, said the university management should explain its decision to participate in the project. But the university said in a statement issued on 26 July: “HKBU respects academic freedom. Scholars have the right to decide on the topics and content of publications. The university should not and will not interfere.”

Nonetheless, the university appeared to distance itself from the booklet, saying the institute was a “self-financed academic research unit” at HKBU. “The operation of the institute does not involve government funding and is not supported by the university’s research funds.”

But HKU’s Cheng Kai-Ming believes that the concerns in Hong Kong are overblown. Young people in Hong Kong need to understand China and work with China “because that is our future”, he said. However he described the term ‘national education’ as “unfortunate”.