A plan by the Hong Kong government to require schools to teach courses in contemporary Chinese history has set off an acrimonious dispute here with political implications. The controversy may threaten the prospects of pro-Beijing candidates in the legislative elections scheduled for this Sunday, and it has opened a broader discussion over the city’s future.
As the school year started on Monday, local government officials were taking pains to say that schools in the city had the discretion to decide how to phase in teaching the subject, before instruction in it becomes mandatory in 2015. The city’s Education Bureau issued a statement on Saturday strongly disavowing a teaching manual for the subject that has drawn heavy criticism in the city for praising the Chinese Communist Party unreservedly and questioning the value of multiparty democracy.
Still, hundreds of youths wearing black T-shirts thronged the area around the government’s headquarters on Monday evening to chant protests against the plan, prompting the police to close streets. Carrie Lam, the chief secretary and second-ranking official in the city government, held a news conference on Monday evening to urge opponents to join a new government committee that would assess public sentiment about the plan. But she said that she would not withdraw the initiative.
Michael DeGolyer, the director of the Hong Kong Transition Project, a coalition of academics who have been studying the territory’s political evolution since 1988, said that public opinion surveys in Hong Kong now show dissatisfaction with the current government in Beijing running higher than at any time since the territory was returned to Chinese rule by Britain in 1997.
“What we see is a dramatic shift in attitudes,” said Mr. DeGolyer, a longtime pollster at Hong Kong Baptist University, adding that the education debate has played a central role in the shift.
Ten people started a hunger strike on Friday in front of the local government’s main offices to demand the withdrawal of the initiative, known as the national education plan; they remained there on Monday. Several thousand people joined a street protest against the initiative on Saturday, and a crowd estimated by the police at 32,000 and by organizers at 90,000 marched on July 29 to denounce the teaching manual as “brainwashing.”
Officials in Beijing have already shifted the emphasis of mainland education over the past three decades away from Marxism-Leninism, although some courses in the subject are still taught, and toward an emphasis on nationalism and the Chinese Communist Party’s role in binding together the country and defending its borders.
That educational program may be effective. The tone of Internet postings in China these days is often fiercely nationalistic with regard to Chinese territorial claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea. The Japanese coast guard’s arrest last month of activists from Hong Kong, Macau and Shenzhen who had landed on an island claimed by China but controlled by Japan touched off anti-Japanese protests in Chinese cities.
Many people in Hong Kong are patriotic about China but less supportive of the Chinese Communist Party. The group of activists that landed on the disputed island is outspokenly pro-democracy, a point glossed over by the mainland Chinese news media.
A local group called the National Education Services Center produced the teaching manual that prompted the protests. Wong Chiming, the center’s director, said the group obtained contracts from the Education Bureau to develop educational materials, which expired on June 30. “The contract has not been renewed, I guess over the feeling of the Education Bureau that the teaching material put out by our center is not accurate,” Mr. Wong said.
The Education Bureau said in the statement on Saturday that it had never endorsed the center’s teaching manual. Anna Wu, a member of the city’s executive council who does not belong to a political party and whom the government named on Aug. 22 to head the public-sentiment committee, said that she personally disagreed with some of the points in the manual, including its criticism of multiparty political systems.
The board of the National Education Services Center, listed on its Web site, is a who’s who of Beijing’s allies in Hong Kong. The most notable member is Tsang Yok-sing, the president of the departing Legislature and a co-founder and former chairman of the territory’s main pro-Beijing political party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.
Mr. Wong said that Mr. Tsang had not been personally involved in preparing the teaching manual; Mr. Tsang did not respond to telephone calls on Monday afternoon to his office and to his executive assistant.
Starry Lee, a vice chairwoman of the alliance and a leading candidate for the Legislature, said she thought the hunger strikers should stop their fast and join Ms. Wu’s committee. Ms. Wu said that she had made an open invitation to the leaders of parent and student groups, but that they had declined to join.
One of the hunger strikers — Gil Lee, a junior majoring in social work at the City University of Hong Kong — said he had no interest in joining the committee and wanted the government to withdraw its plan for mandatory national education.
Under British rule, Chinese history courses in Hong Kong stopped with the events of the early 1800s. That was conveniently before the Opium Wars that began in 1839 and 1856, in which Britain seized the core pieces of what is now Hong Kong in retaliation for Chinese restrictions on imports of opium. Since Hong Kong’s return to China, middle schools have begun teaching more recent Chinese history as part of world history courses, particularly through World War II, and a few optional high school courses come up to the present.
Seldom mentioned in the national education debate is a much broader and more intractable problem for which few solutions have been proposed: the deep linguistic divide that separates Hong Kong from the rest of China.
Hong Kong residents overwhelmingly speak Cantonese, an ancient tongue as different in spoken form from Mandarin as Spanish is from French. Mandarin is now widely spoken in mainland China, even in parts of southeastern China where Cantonese used to predominate.
Aside from a handful of private institutions like the Independent Schools Foundation Academy and the Chinese International School, which provide truly bilingual education in Mandarin and English, Mandarin tends to be taught as a foreign language in Hong Kong schools. Three-quarters of the city’s schools operate primarily in Cantonese, and the rest teach mainly in English; few teachers have been trained to teach subjects like math or the humanities in Mandarin.
The result is fierce competition from businesses and the Hong Kong government for graduates who can communicate with residents of the rest of China — particularly with the approach of 2047, when Beijing’s promise of considerable autonomy for Hong Kong is to expire.