Chinese ‘Patriotic’ Education Draws Protesters in Hong Kong

Tens of thousands of parents, students and social activists marched through Hong Kong yesterday to oppose plans for Chinese national education lessons in the city that detractors say will stifle independent thinking.

With many clad in black and white to symbolize the contrast between right and wrong, and carrying placards stating “We don’t need no thought control,” demonstrators protested government plans to introduce the subject in state-run primary schools in the city from September. The authorities intend to extend the classes, which aim to foster Chinese identity, to secondary schools from 2013 and phase in the lessons over three years.

The rally took place less than a month after Leung Chun-ying was inaugurated as the city’s chief executive. Government talks with opponents to delay the new curriculum collapsed at the weekend, the South China Morning Post reported in its Sunday edition. Textbooks will give a pro-Communist Party account of China’s history and political system, according to Willy Wo-Lap Lam, an adjunct professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“This popular movement against patriotic education reflects distrust of the C.Y. Leung administration,” Lam said by phone yesterday before the rally. “This is really very crude patriotic, nationalistic propaganda.”

Officially Autonomous

Leung, the city’s third ruler since it was handed back to China, is implementing the education plan put into place by his predecessor, Donald Tsang. Hong Kong, a former British colony that marked 15 years in July since its return to Chinese rule, is officially autonomous except for matters of national defense and diplomatic relations.

More than 90,000 people attended yesterday’s protests, according to Andrew Shum of the Hong Kong Christian Institute who helped arrange the demonstrations. Police estimate that about 32,000 protesters were in the procession at its peak, according to an e-mailed response to questions from the Police Public Relations Branch today.

Mothers with strollers and fathers clutching toddlers’ hands gathered in temperatures that rose as high as 33 degrees Celsius (91.4 degrees Fahrenheit) before marching to the government’s offices with banners exhorting “Communist China, leave them kids alone” and “Stop brainwashing us!”

Public Anxiety

“We are contesting a syllabus that just shows the positive side of the People’s Republic of China,” said Yip Po Lam, an organizer of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese, which also helped organize the demonstration. “It does not facilitate independent thinking by students.”

Hong Kong’s League of Social Democrats and Civic Party both ran stalls near the starting point of yesterday’s rally.

The education bureau will set up a committee to advise the department during the three-year initiation period “to dispel public anxiety” and “solicit more views from different stakeholders,” the government said in a statement on its website after yesterday’s protest.

Voters head to the polls on Sept. 9 to elect members of the city’s Legislative Council.

Lawmakers have challenged Leung’s credibility as the financial center’s leader after his home was found to have illegal building structures and his development secretary stepped down to address corruption allegations.

Alliance of Activists

An alliance of activists including the National Education Parents’ Concern Group and Scholarism, a student body, convened the latest protest.

“The anger is not just from parents but from people from all walks of life,” said Eva Chan, convener of the National Education Parents’ Concern Group. The curriculum would cause “brainwashing of young people,” she said by phone before the demonstration.

One textbook explains how the Communist Party is a progressive, united and effective ruler, comparing it with the U.S. where a two-party system leads to eternal debates and gridlock, said Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. There is no mention of the Cultural Revolution or the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square, according to Lam. “The level of crudity is even worse than that of the textbooks you find in China,” he said.

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