|Hong Kong: China's most patriotic city |
By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - Let's face it, nearly 14 years after the British handed back this colony to Chinese rule, this city of 7.1 million people has yet to take the motherland in a warm, loving embrace. There have been lots of firm handshakes sealing economic deals, but hugs of genuine affection have been few, and fond kisses - indeed, even perfunctory pecks on the cheek - even fewer. So far, Hong Kong's reunification with the mainland has been an economically successful but distinctly cold-blooded affair.
But now, no doubt on orders from their political masters in Beijing, Hong Kong's leaders have announced plans to boost the population's love of country by making "national education" (read: "political indoctrination") a compulsory subject in primary and
secondary schools as early as next year.
While no one is expecting Mao Zedong's Little Red Book to become required reading for Hong Kong students, propaganda passed off as national history is a worry. And jingoism passed off as patriotism is also a fear.
Hong Kong has been a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China since July 1, 1997, and what makes the city "special" are the high-degree autonomy and the freedoms - of religion, of expression and of assembly - that are enshrined in its mini-constitution, called the Basic Law.
Topics banned on the mainland - the brutal June 4, 1989, crackdown on a student-led pro-democracy movement, for example, or the government's more recent detentions of scores of human-rights activists - are freely discussed here, in the media and in the classroom.
Groups outlawed by Beijing - for instance the Falungong spiritual movement and The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China - speak and move about freely here.
Thus, guardians of Hong Kong's special status in China become alarmed whenever there is talk of boosting national pride, especially through educational instruction, in this stubbornly independent-minded city. And a high official in the central government's liaison office in Hong Kong only exacerbated the growing feeling of apprehension when he described the implementation of national education here as "necessary brainwashing".
Writing on his blog, Hao Tiechuan, the director of the Publicity, Culture and Sports Department of the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government in the Hong Kong SAR, said: "Regarding the moral and national education in Hong Kong primary and secondary schools, some people say it amounts to 'brainwashing'. But if we look at such systems in Western countries like the United States and France, we will find this kind of 'necessary brainwashing' is an international convention."
Hao added: "Some people say there is a need to help primary and secondary school pupils develop critical thinking. However, the usual practice in the international community is to nurture critical thinking in universities, not in primary and secondary schools. Some people say moral and national education should not follow the central government's line. But would that still be called national education?"
The good news is that both pro-democracy and pro-Beijing politicians in the city blasted Hao for the ineptitude of his remarks. Thankfully, no one located anywhere on Hong Kong's variegated political spectrum supports brainwashing. Before, during and after the handover, bald-faced propaganda has fallen on deaf ears in Hong Kong. It is remarkable that, 14 years after China resumed sovereignty over the city, its chief representative for culture here should show so little understanding of that fact.
Here's a shocking announcement for Hao and for his fellow Communist Party bureaucrats in Beijing: Hong Kong does not need any instruction from the north on national education as it already is - by any honest standard - the most patriotic city in China. The problem for those bureaucrats, however, is that the Hong Kong brand of patriotism embraces criticism and dissent when national leadership goes awry.
No Chinese city was prouder than Hong Kong after Beijing's triumph on the world stage as host of the spectacular 2008 Summer Olympic Games. No Chinese city applauded with greater fervor when Colonel Zhai Zhigang became China's first astronaut to walk in space. And no Chinese city was more pleased with the watershed announcement last year that the nation's economy had overtaken Japan to become the second largest in the world.
Chinese leaders love Hong Kong when the city shows its patriotism in pride and praise over the country's many achievements. But they don't like it when people take to the streets or the blogosphere to register their concerns when things go wrong, although the latter is just as much a form of loyalty as the former. In particular, China's human-rights record is an embarrassment to many people in Hong Kong - where, again, the rights of the individual are strenuously protected in the Basic Law.
Protests against the government - both local and national - are a weekly occurrence in the city, and dissent an accepted cultural and political norm. That explains why - while the mainland's army of cyber censors is doing its level best to delete every Internet posting about detained artist and government critic Ai Weiwei, arrested April 3 at Beijing Capital International Airport as he was about to board a flight to Hong Kong - in this city there are street demonstrations demanding his release. One clever demonstrator even managed to project a giant image of Ai onto a wall of the People's Liberation Army barracks here.
And next month, on June 4, the world will once again see the starkest show of difference between life in Hong Kong and life on the mainland as thousands of people gather in the city's Victoria Park for the annual candlelight vigil marking the 22nd anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square; meanwhile, in the square itself, Beijing police will make sure not a peep of protest or commemoration is seen or heard.
Hong Kong has also become the landing place for books by Chinese authors banned on the mainland, among them the secret memoirs of Zhao Ziyang, deposed as Communist Party general secretary and placed under house arrest for his support of the Tiananmen demonstrators.
Zhao died in 2005; his book, Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang, based on audiotapes he managed to record while under house arrest, was published in 2009 by Simon & Schuster. A Chinese-language version of the book, published by New Century Press, was released in Hong Kong just days before the 20th anniversary of the June 4 crackdown. It is still selling well in the city's bookstores, especially to mainland tourists. (See China and catharsis in the words of Zhao, Asia Times Online, May 22, 2009)
This year two books banned on the mainland - an unflattering portrait of the current premier, China's Best Actor: Wen Jiabao, and a memoir written by Gao Yaojie, China's best known advocate for those suffering from HIV and AIDS - have been shortlisted for the Hong Kong Book Prize, an award sponsored by the city's government but decided by an independent panel of judges.
It is cultural differences like this that make people very nervous about calls for a national education campaign in Hong Kong schools. In 2007, the 10th anniversary of the handover, President Hu Jintao exhorted Hong Kong's younger generation to learn more about the motherland and, taking the cue a few months later, Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen stressed the importance of national education in his annual policy address.
Since then, although national education has not yet become a compulsory course, a number of the city's schools have taken it up. Flag raising and singing the national anthem have become part of the daily routine at many Hong Kong schools, as have lessons in Chinese history, geography and culture. That's fine - even healthy - most educators agree.
Just keep political propaganda out of the classroom.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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