This week Winston Churchill’s alma mater Harrow opened its doors to 750 students in Hong Kong. Parents in the city are paying at least $21,000-a year to send their children to the boarding school, which also boasts six other British prime ministers as former pupils.
Despite the hefty price tag, some local parents have been putting their children’s names on waiting lists at birth. For many, a debenture payment of up to HK$3 million ($385,000) is needed just to secure a place at the English school’s Hong Kong campus.
The waiting list might be about to get even longer? That’s because many parents in Hong Kong are worried about a new government plan that they say will be detrimental to children’s education. The controversy is over the introduction of so-called “moral and national education” in all public elementary schools in Hong Kong (international schools like Harrow will be exempted).
Last Saturday, just days before Hong Kong’s new school year begins, 40,000 people took to the streets (according to organisers of the rally) to protest against the new educational programme, despite torrential downpours. Ten students and teachers also began a hunger strike protest last Friday.
Centre-stage in the protests is a textbook titled The China Model, which was to be given to students in the autumn as part of the new school year’s curriculum. Opponents say that its sections on modern history are a hasty rehash of Chinese propaganda, omitting any mention of the Cultural Revolution or other problematic periods, and extolling the virtues of one-party rule. One of the book’s more ideological claims: “Multiparty politics could victimise people, whereas concentrated political power creates a selfless government and stable society.” The class was scheduled to be taught in some elementary schools beginning this September and is to be mandatory in 2015 for all public elementary schools, and 2016 for public high schools.
“National education is necessary. Every country has it, but not like this,” one parent complained.
Government officials say the point of the course is to promote a deeper sense of awareness among Hong Kong residents of Chinese current affairs, history and culture. The idea is also to help them “foster a sense of affection for the country,” according to the Education Bureau’s curriculum guide.
But for many parents, teachers and their students, the new content seems to confirm fears that national education will turn out to be a form of “brainwashing”.
This something that Hong Kong’s newly elected chief executive CY Leung denies. He has insisted that his administraion has “no motive” to brainwash pupils. “No matter which way people chose to express their opinions, they should act rationally and exchange views with one another,” Leung implored.
However, in light of the overwhelmingly negative response to the education plan, the government has agreed to delay the mandatory implementation of the curriculum until 2015. But it still insists that plans for moral and national education will move forward. Protesters were not happy, with many still gathered outside the government’s main offices this week demanding that the programme be completely abandoned.
The latest controversy is another sign of the perceived animosity towards China among sections of the Hong Kong population. People in the territory are worried that the city’s future is leaning more towards “one country” and further away from “two systems”. While they appreciate the perks of being a part of China – especially the trade and financial privileges not granted to other Chinese jurisdictions – there is a growing sense that Hong Kong is losing its independence.
“We must continue to be alert, to know what really China wants in Hong Kong,” says Allen Lee Peng-fei, former legislator and convener of the Executive Council, an influential advisory body. “We don’t want to be puppets. We don’t want to be only followers.”
But others say that the anger directed against the national education programme has been blown out of proportion. “It’s impossible to be brainwashed,” says Wong Chi Man, who directs the National Education Services Centre in the city. “Hong Kong people still have access to a lot of information. All education is, to some extent, designed to brainwash. I think the word ‘brainwash’ is too negative.”
Besides, under British rule Hong Kong people were also being “brainwashed,” a columnist commented in the Hong Kong Economic Journal. The only difference was that the Brits were much more subtle in how they approached the task. For a start, Chinese history courses stopped with the events of the early 1800s. That was conveniently before the Opium Wars that began in 1839 and 1856, in which the British seized parts of the territory that now makes up Hong Kong, agreed the New York Times. Lest we forget these conflicts were triggered by British insistence on the right to sell narcotics in China. Gunships forced the issue when Beijing refused.
In the meantime, the education debacle in Hong Kong has also attracted attention on weibo on the Chinese mainland. Judging from some of the comments online it appears that many netizens are supportive of the protesters. One wrote: “Protect Hong Kong, because Hong Kong is our future. If we lose Hong Kong, tomorrow we are no different from North Korea.”
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