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Big protests arise in Hong Kong over Chinese 'national education'

September 5, 2012 | 12:22 pm


As the school year begins in Hong Kong, thousands of protesters in the former British colony are rallying against new classes soon to be required by China, deriding them as “brainwashing.”

Chinese officials say the newly introduced "Moral and National Education" classes, which will be mandatory in three years, are meant to bolster national identity and pride.

Hong Kong education officials have hastened to add that “national education” makes up only a fifth of the classes, which “cultivate students’ positive values and attitudes.”

“There are no mandatory learning and teaching materials imposed by the government,” the Hong Kong Education Bureau said earlier this summer,  adding that the website included a copy of the curriculum guide for public perusal, “in which there are no elements for brainwashing.”

The protesters argue the classes are government propaganda that whitewash history under Communist Party rule, pointing to a Chinese educational handbook that skips over Tiananmen Square and says systems with more than one political party create a “malignant party struggle.” The booklet, titled "The China Model," was produced by a government-funded group.

Though education officials say the handbook is not part of the curriculum and no topics are off-limits, critics see it as a sign of an overly rosy picture of China under the new classes.

“I want my children to love our country, but I don’t want them to be in love with a false image,” Hong Kong mother and writer Verna Yu wrote in a New York Times op-ed earlier this summer.

Thousands have gathered outside Hong Kong government headquarters this week in protest, with several protesters declaring hunger strikes against the classes. Radio Television Hong Kong reported early Thursday that the protests continue “and show little sign of giving up.”

Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying has urged protesters to join a government committee to discuss their concerns. Leung said withdrawing the classes isn’t an option, the South China Morning Post reported.

Hong Kong has been under Chinese control for 15 years but has operated with a degree of autonomy from mainland China. Residents see themselves most strongly as “Hong Kong citizens,” a December poll at the University of Hong Kong found. More identified as “members of the Chinese race” than “Chinese citizens,” and even fewer identified as “citizens of the People’s Republic of China,” a label they found less fitting than "global citizens."

Alienation and tensions between Hong Kong and the mainland erupted into open hostility this year as Hong Kong residents protested against Chinese women coming to the territory to give birth; Chinese microbloggers outraged by the affront called them colonial snobs.

Hinting at those cultural divides, the leader of a Hong Kong group that backs the new courses reportedly said “brainwashing” was in order for local residents earlier this summer.

“If there are problems with the brain, then it needs to be washed, just as clothes need washing if they are dirty and kidneys need dialysis if they are sick,” Jiang Yudui was quoted by the Washington Post, triggering more suspicion over the classes.

As the angry protests have continued, Leung canceled a trip to a regional summit in Russia on Wednesday, saying he had to attend to domestic duties.


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Students sing at a sit-in protest Wednesday outside government headquarters in Hong Kong to urge authorities to cancel a new course called "Moral and National Education." Credit: Kin Cheung / Associated Press