BEIJING -- Seeking to put to rest months of controversy and demonstrations, Hong Kong officials said Monday they would shelve “national education” course guidelines that many residents of the former British colony had protested as an indoctrination tool being imposed by mainland China.
The "Moral and National Education" classes, which were to have become mandatory at elementary schools within three years, were meant to bolster national identity and pride, Chinese officials said. But critics complained that the classes would be government propaganda that whitewashed history under Communist Party rule.
In early September, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets to denounce the planned courses, and some university students briefly went on a hunger strike.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced Sept. 8 in the wake of the large protests that the classes would not be mandatory, but tensions have continued. On Oct. 1, China’s National Day, protesters carrying banners with slogans such as “End one-party dictatorship" and "Power to the people” marched to the China Central Government Liaison Office.
Others carried Hong Kong colonial flags and signs urging the territory to become an independent city-state, a la Singapore.
Leung acknowledged at a news conference Monday that the curriculum battle had been “divisive” and said he hoped the arguing would now end.
“I hope that ... the argument will be over, mutual trust in the community will be rebuilt and students can study in an interference-free environment,” he said.
But in a splitting of hairs that may frustrate opponents of the classes, Leung did not officially withdraw the plan. He said doing so was unnecessary because schools are now permitted to decide for themselves whether to implement the classes, and when and how to do so. Some protesters have said that as long as the guidelines exist, the government can revive the matter down the road.
Hong Kong, with a population of about 7 million, reverted to Chinese control in 1997 but has operated with a large 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, rather than “citizens of the People’s Republic of China.”
Tensions between Hong Kongers have been rising over a number of issues beyond the school curriculum. Many residents have decried an influx of mainlanders to the territory, accusing them of abusing city services, acting rudely, and driving up real estate prices.
-- Julie Makinen
Photo: Pro-democracy demonstrators shout slogans during a protest against the Chinese government outside the venue where a flag-raising ceremony was to be held to mark China's National Day in Hong Kong on Oct. 1. The banner reads "End the one party rule in China, return power to the people. " Credit: Vincent Yu / Associated Press.