Editor’s Note: Dr. Leung Yan Wing is an associate professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education and the Co-Director at the School’s Centre for Governance and Citizenship. He specializes in civic education, human rights education, and national education. As an active member of Hong Kong’s civil society Dr. Leung is an executive member of CIVITAS International and has spoken at length about Hong Kong’s education system.
In 2012 the Hong Kong government proposed a controversial set of education guidelines dubbed the “Moral, Civic and National Education” system. These led to widespread protests and criticism. In part, many saw the system as a form of brainwashing, especially for younger students.
So usually within other countries—especially democratic ones—one rarely encounters the term “national education.” Usually whatever is available is lumped within civics education. Elements of teaching students about their country exist within it but it is rarely called “National Education.” The only place I can think that uses this term of National Education is probably Singapore.
You can say this might only be a matter of terminology, but actually there is a more in depth reason for this. Civic encompasses more than just a nation, it also considers the world and talks about one’s own multiple citizenships.
For example, I am a Hong Kong citizen, a Chinese National and a global citizen. I have all these layers and different levels of identity. In this age of globalization, I can’t say I’m not concerned about global affairs. Narrowing our scope by calling it national education can lead to the dangers of nationalism. When we expand our definition of a citizen to the global, we can teach children about the cosmopolitan values of human rights, which may be different to those in a given country.
What other countries do then is incorporate elements of what the national education curriculum was meant to achieve within civic education. These lessons on the nation will then follow the pedagogy and values of the rest of civic education. This is important because within civic education, regardless of the scale of the issue being discussed, it is handled with care and labelled as potentially controversial. Opinions of each student are thus conveyed and discussed in an open setting. This is very important, because the national education curriculum proposed in Hong Kong was not put within the framework of civic education. Within the document it listed out key issues that would be discussed, such as local issues, national issues, and global issues. When it talks about global issues and local issues of Hong Kong, these were deemed “controversial” though. But when it talks about national issues of China, the word controversial never appears—as if what happens in China is not controversial. This is very dangerous. How can issues in such a large country not be controversial then, how can they not be up for debate? Unless the nation’s leader is God. This is the way they perceive it and why many people were annoyed by this curriculum. Because if China is taken as the truth and these issues cannot be discussed or debated there must be some measure of brainwashing going on. This way of teaching it—by taking everything that happens in China at face value—worried many people within Hong Kong and angered others. Many feared that this would indoctrinate their children and protests rose up in response.
Did the Hong Kong government attempt to address any of these fears about the national education curriculum?
Under these great pressures, the Hong Kong government published a revised version of this curriculum in 2012—which I admit was slightly better. If I were to give the first curriculum a mark out of 100 it would be 20 or something worse. The second gets a marginal pass around 60. The government did listen to the people and try to do a better job, but unfortunately in education it is not only the curriculum outline that matters. The teaching materials that came—a booklet—were published by a pro-China NGO. Inside, it only talked about one side of Chinese issues.
That was the material published for all schools to use. And within Hong Kong schools, especially primary schools the teachers are so busy. Usually they just pick up whatever materials they have without first consulting the guidelines, even if the guidelines have improved. The material was very biased, and the teachers simply pick up whatever is inside and teach it. So these materials have the potential to be more influential. And when parents see these materials, they may see that their children are learning about China in such a way and being brainwashed.
There is a very fine line between indoctrination and teaching students about their history and culture. Do you think Hong Kong has always done enough to enrich its citizens and teach them about Hong Kong’s past and cultural history, or was there a need to expand its scope to include a type of “national education”?
The issue is not about the scope. The issue is how to convince the youth to learn about China, and not indoctrinate them. That’s what education is meant to do. And really show them we can talk and learn about China, reach different opinions and conclusions about events within China. Yet this is not what the government wants, they only want to nurture specific sentiments about China. When you learn and explore China will you always reach a positive conclusion? Not necessarily. When I was in a training course over ten years ago, one primary school teacher was assigned to help hoist the Chinese National Flag. The teacher told me he was assigned by the principal, and he couldn’t say no. Yet whenever he looked at the communist flag he could only think of Tiananmen Square, he could only think of the tanks, and he felt angry whenever he looked at the flag. But his duty is to help hoist the flag. So when we look at China we get a whole diversity of opinion, it all depends on your perception and knowledge about events in China. So you can’t control someone’s emotions and reactions towards China. Education should not control people’s feelings, control their perceptions. All we can do is take out these issues and let people discuss them.
So is the role of an educator to help students form an opinion in such a way?
Yes, through critical thinking. They should help students make informed decisions. People always ask me if we should study China, what’s wrong with studying China. Anyone who has to make a decision should make their decision based on understanding. On social media many people simply do things because they like or dislike something. Do people base this on thoughtful discussion and deliberation?
Learning about China is important but it should be up to individual students to judge whether something was bad or good, and then they come up with different opinions. Take the whole Occupy Central movement. Some say what China has conceded to Hong Kong is an improvement. But for many others who see democracy as something different, and base their views of democracy on international standards, they see Beijing’s decision as a false form of universal suffrage. It all depends on what you compare things to. It should be the teacher’s responsibility to show students what the objective facts are, compare current events to past events, and help students make more informed decisions. Education should help young people be informed.
How does this all compare with the current education system within mainland China?
In China everything is controlled by the party, so it is clear what can and cannot be taught. Even though a teacher may not believe what is being taught and neither does the student, they will still go through with the ideological education. This is important for them to personally, in order to get into the Communist party and get higher paying jobs. Some of my colleagues here are scholars who have gone overseas for their Ph.D.’s and tell us that in China this kind of education is imposed on them but nobody believes in it. But everyone wants to get a high grade and be part of the party. In China they can do this openly with full support of the party, but in Hong Kong, because it is one country two systems, if the government wants to do something they can only infuse it (usually through omission). By omission you usually don’t know what is missing, not like in China where everything is done so explicitly.
Because Hong Kong’s civil society is so strong it balances the view of the government. So it is unlike China because we still technically have freedom of speech and the government cannot control it so strongly, but because of this whole Occupy Central, the state might begin tightening its grip. It wants to re-enlighten its people. They think Hong Kong citizens emphasize the two systems part too much and want us to orient ourselves back to the fact that it is one country.
Recently the education bureau published a set of education kits for Hong Kong’s basic law. We are still analyzing this in detail and a few problems have already been found. This new package is using the Chinese Communist party’s view of what Basic Law entails, which was published in the 2013 White Paper. They say Hong Kong people, lawyers, et cetera have interpreted everything incorrectly and we should go back to the original interpretation of Basic Law that China held. They tried to re-define Basic Law. This also caused a large protest. So the new teaching kits make references to this White Paper, making it more aligned with the Chinese interpretation. This can be dangerous and is gradually destroying the core values of Hong Kong. We value the separation of power in Hong Kong, but in China it is more about cooperation between the three powers. Isn’t this what one country, two systems should mean? That we have different systems? So we are afraid in the long term that these actions in Hong Kong will shake and undermine the independence of law. It is not so strong handed, but it is by appropriation and subversion. Especially in primary schools, where teachers aren’t well trained in these things it is hard for them to differentiate between these things. They see these nicely designed pamphlets and will try their best to use them .
Usually these classes will be taught under general studies, which unlike English, mathematics, or Chinese, are taught by anyone. Usually these teachers do not have a background in these fields and are just assigned to general studies. An English teacher might have 3 classes of English and 1 class of general studies. You are not an expert, when you check out these teaching kits you cannot differentiate between that which is accurate and that which is not. You have no time.
What surprised me the most about the curriculum was not just its scope but how early it started. Some say this is a ploy to indoctrinate children early on, do you see any truth in that statement?
Anything can be indoctrinating. It is more important about how you teach something. Plenty of schools in Hong Kong are run by churches. Yet we are okay with that. In Hong Kong we only talk about free-market economics. That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything else we can teach. We should revise the way we teach, so that students start to think. Currently I’m doing some research with kindergarten and primary schools. Some children at Primary 3 can think about controversial issues. I remember being in a Primary 3 national education class. I interviewed some children afterwards and asked, “Next time when your teacher teaches civic education what do you want to learn?” Some kids wanted to learn about Occupy Central in Hong Kong, the others wanted to learn about ISIS and “why they are killing all these people?” It is very clear, the primary school children already have access to all this information from the Internet. But they don’t know what all this is, or they are too easily influenced. We cannot stop this generation from accessing the internet. What we can help them with is getting a better understanding of everything, which I think is best done through school.
How can we teach these things without indoctrinating then? It comes down to the teacher. When I was in Primary 3 or 4 I never thought about these sorts of global issues that all these children have access to now. All we can do is have well trained teachers who differentiate between learning and brainwashing, facilitate discussions, and help their students form their own opinions and judgements.
Illustration – Yu Xuan Chia