China wields patriotic education to tame Hong Kong's rebellious youth
With the aim of remake Hong Kong's youth into citizens loyal to China, the ruling Communist Party has turned to re-education, a tried and tested tactic of the Party through decades of extinguishing domestic opposition.
Interviews with Hong Kong political figures, teachers and school principals, and mainland Chinese officials, as well as a review of new educational materials, reveal that the school curriculum, teaching staff, exams and extra-curricular activities are all in Beijing's crosshairs.
Targeting the city's teachers has become part of a broader plan by China's leaders to reform the city's rebellious youth after last year's sometimes-violent pro-democracy demonstrations.
Some 40% of the 9,200 protesters arrested in the period between June last year and this year were students, according to the police. Of these, 1,635 were under the age of 18. About 100 teachers and staffers from primary and secondary schools were also arrested, according to the city's education secretary.
'Help Our Next Generation'
Cua Chiu-fai is on a mission to rid Hong Kong's classrooms of what he sees as poisonous anti-China bias. His soldiers: mainly parents. He has recruited hundreds of mothers and fathers to monitor and report on teachers deemed guilty of filling their students with hate for China and urging them to take to the streets in protest.
Using his YouTube channel, which has 114,000 subscribers, Cua says he has enlisted parents and other volunteers as part of an initiative called "Help Our Next Generation." In a video posted in late October, he talks about seeing pictures of "people who looked like teachers" directing young students to pick up bricks during the demonstrations that roiled Hong Kong last year. These teachers need to have their licenses revoked, he says in the video: "If you're a teacher and you make your students destroy this place for certain so-called political positions, that's something we absolutely cannot accept."
Cua's vigilante initiative has won the support of some pro-Beijing political figures in Hong Kong.
The government is painting a picture of a "bankrupt" education system to justify drastic changes and accelerate control, said Ip Kin-yuen, a pro-democracy lawmaker who represents the education sector in the Legislative Council. The moves have engendered fear among teachers, Ip said.
In September, a Hong Kong teacher became the first to lose his teaching license after being accused of promoting the city's independence in class. Responding to the move, city leader Carrie Lam said "bad apples" needed to be removed from the education system.
Earlier this month, the Education Bureau revoked the license of a second teacher, saying in a statement that he distorted historical fact in class, including telling students that Britain "launched the Opium War to eliminate opium in China."
The increased scrutiny of teachers is having an effect. Michael Wong, honorary executive secretary of the Hong Kong Association of the Heads of Secondary Schools, told Reuters that following the imposition of the national security law in June, many principals have come to fear challenges from the government, parents or the public.
Fearing retribution, two teachers told Reuters they plan to steer clear of thorny issues like the mass detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang. When it comes to sensitive topics, they said, they plan to stick closely to newly revised textbooks for liberal studies, a civics course students take in their final years of schooling.
The revision, overseen by the city's education bureaucracy, was completed ahead of the new school year. A review of two of these textbooks shows there have been multiple changes. Expunged are sections that might be considered critical of Beijing, or supportive of democracy and civil rights.
For China's leaders, the youth-led protests in Hong Kong contained unnerving echoes of a perilous period for the Communist Party – the student-led Tiananmen protests that briefly shook their hold on power. After crushing the protests, the Party began in 1991 to introduce a patriotic education campaign on the mainland. The main thrust was to constantly remind students of China's "century of humiliation," and the Communist Party's role in repelling foreign powers and restoring national sovereignty.
The project has been incredibly successful, says Zhao Suisheng, a professor at the University of Denver who has studied the education campaign. "In China today, nationalistic sentiments are prevailing among the young people," Zhao said. "That is the result of patriotic education. They gave them only the information they wanted them to have and tried to block all other information."
Until now, engineering that type of groupthink in Hong Kong hasn't been easy. On a 2007 visit to the city, Chinese President Hu Jintao called for fostering a strong sense of national identity among young people. The local government opened the funding tap, allocating more money to national education.
However, there was no immediate payoff in patriotic sentiment. In 2012, tens of thousands of students, parents, and teachers protested the government's attempt to introduce a compulsory national education subject and the government backed down.