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HK govt does U-turn on national education plan
Publication Date : 09-09-2012
Public discontent over perceived meddling by Beijing threatens to affect outcome of Legislative Council election today
A policy that was five years in the brewing, and aimed at making younger Hong Kongers identify more closely with China, was overturned yesterday.
After 10 days of protests, the Hong Kong government backed down on plans to make national education compulsory in schools.
The U-turn, announced by Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying at a hastily called press conference yesterday evening, came on the eve of a critical Legislative Council election.
Hong Kongers will select their legislature today - the outcome of which will determine Leung's ability to push policies through, as well as the design of the universal suffrage process to allow the people to elect their Chief Executive directly in 2017.
But ire over the introduction of national education classes was shaping up to be a key issue in determining how people would vote.
The government has insisted that the subject was meant merely to foster a sense of national identity and for students to better understand their country. But many feared it would be a brainwashing exercise to bring about blind support for the Chinese Communist Party.
The issue was first raised in 2007 by visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao. Surveys showed that 15 years after the city's handover from the British to China, Hong Kongers were no closer to feeling at one with the motherland. The latest survey, by Hong Kong University, showed that less than a third of Hong Kongers identify themselves as Chinese or Hong Kong Chinese citizens - even fewer than the numbers in 1997.
While reactions to the new subject were initially muted, alarm bells went off earlier this year after a government-funded publisher distributed a leaflet called The China Model - extolling the virtues of one-party rule in China - to all government schools.
The government later clarified that it was not compulsory teaching material and that schools were free to set their own content.
But the damage was done. Despite several concessions by the government - for instance, a three-year period to phase in the curriculum, and a committee to canvass public opinion on its contents, the protesters remained intractable in their opposition.
A grim-faced Leung said last night that the deadline would be scrapped. "The schools are given the authority to decide when and how they would like to introduce the moral and national education," he said.
The announcement is expected to cool some of the angst of recent weeks.
As temperatures sizzled and politicians played to the gallery, angry students began laying siege to the government complex in the Admiralty shopping and business district last Thursday, calling for national education to be scrapped.
Three teenagers from a student group called Scholarism, organised by 15-year-old Joshua Wong, began fasting in protest, before being joined by others in a relay strike.
Others strummed guitars, shouted slogans and paraded a replica of the Goddess of Democracy, evoking powerful imagery from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
On Friday evening, they were joined by tens of thousands of Hong Kongers clad in black. A retired couple in their 60s, Albin Cheng and Cheng Mei Wah, said they were there "because the government is too wrong this time". Said Cheng: "I really don't want to see the next generation not being able to identify what's right and what's wrong."
But while they joined in celebrating "the power of the people" last night, some say they want a wholesale scrapping of the programme. Meanwhile, others such as political scientist Peter Cheung of the Hong Kong University, worry about the long-term ramifications.
He told The Sunday Times: "I'm deeply concerned. There are different ways of playing politics, and I predict that such an approach will end up inviting more intervention from Beijing in the long run to penetrate, control, manipulate and intervene.
"And this is exactly what everyone in Hong Kong doesn't want."