They are sitting in orderly rows, wearing neatly pressed uniforms. But in this class, as they debate the merits of democracy and civil rights, Hong Kong high school students are prompting Beijing to worry that they are increasingly out of control, The New York Times writes.
The mandatory civics course known here as liberal studies has been a hallmark of the curriculum in Hong Kong for years, and students and teachers say the point is to make better citizens who are more engaged with society.
But Chinese officials and pro-Beijing supporters say the prominence of the city’s youth at recent mass protests is the clearest sign yet that this tradition of academic freedom has gone too far, giving rise to a generation of rebels, the Times adds.
“The liberal studies curriculum is a failure,” Tung Chee-hwa, a former leader of Hong Kong, said in July. “It is one of the reasons behind the youth’s problems today.”
As Hong Kong’s high school students head back to school this week after a summer of protests, there are concerns that the struggle that has taken place in the city’s streets will move into classrooms.
Already, students from universities and high schools across the city have planned class boycotts to ramp up pressure on the government to fulfill the protesters’ demands, which include universal suffrage and the full withdrawal of a contentious extradition bill.
In response, the authorities have been taking steps to depoliticize campuses. In a notice issued last month, the city’s education bureau told teachers that if asked “difficult questions” about the current events, they could say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand it, either.”
China’s ruling Communist Party has long seen education as a crucial ideological tool for nurturing loyal citizens. Under Xi Jinping, the country’s authoritarian leader, the party has ramped up patriotic education on the mainland, helping shape one of the most nationalistic generations of youth that the country has seen in years.
The party’s past efforts to push through similar patriotic education programs in Hong Kong, a Chinese territory with more civil liberties than on the mainland, have failed, the Times noted. But there are concerns that Hong Kong’s long-cherished tradition of academic freedom may once again be in the party’s cross hairs.
In recent months, officials in Beijing have repeatedly stressed the need for stronger patriotic education in Hong Kong. “There is indeed a problem with the national education of Hong Kong’s youth,” said Xu Luying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, at a news conference last month. “Passionately loving the country and passionately loving the motherland should be taught in the first class in school.”
To the party, what is at stake is no less than Beijing’s legitimacy in the eyes of Hong Kong’s next generation. It wants to draw Hong Kong closer to Beijing by fostering patriotism that plays up the party’s achievements and whitewashes its tumultuous history.