Mandatory National Education Plans Scrapped, But Who Really Wins?

Protesters occupying Hong Kong’s city plaza have won — sort of. Wall Street Journal reports people are feeling “mixed jubilation and frustration” after the city announced yesterday it will make its controversial National Education curriculum “voluntary.” While it’s too early to unravel all the implications of this decision, a direct result is that those on their hunger strike can now eat. “I am dying for a bowl of wonton noodles,” said one Mr. Hon. (Maybe he shouldn’t have starved himself — I remember a time when hunger strikes were reserved for truly extraordinary causes, such as getting out of prison and opposing Hindu-Muslim violence.)

What was all the fuss about? If I’m not mistaken, the teachers of core subjects at these schools will continue to be mostly Hong Kongers, correct? They’re not all being fired? No one is being asked to pledge an allegiance to a flag? Were people worried Hong Kong’s teachers would be subjugated to Winston Smith-style brainwashing before being unleashed back into the classroom to inculcate a brainwashed curriculum on brainwash-able (and totally not disobedient, already cynical, smart-aleck) children?

As Tea Leaf Nation notes: “From the comments [to a Yahoo Hong Kong article], some worry that Hong Kong children lack knowledge about China and Chinese history, and opposition to national education may itself become another form of brainwashing.”Continuing:

MANDY pointed out that when Hong Kong’s education bureau introduced curriculum reforms in 2000, Chinese history was one of the classes cut from middle schools’ mandatory curriculum. 骨精強 wrote, “It’s not a question of whether Chinese history is taught well, but that the course is seen as useless because it has nothing to do with making money. That’s how the society, corporations, parents and students see it, but such fashionable view points are often skewed. What’s fashionable and popular today may become worthless tomorrow — just to give one example: Communism. But, a Chinese person who doesn’t study, or does not need to study, the history of one’s own country, that ‘s very sad.”

I understand the aversion to ideological education, and I’ve ranted about as much in this space, but protests in the past week have ignored the actual content of the curriculum they so loathe. I don’t mean just the worst parts on Old Woman Marxism-Leninism or Party slogans, but the curriculum taken as a whole, which is still only a snapshot of the schooling that mainland Chinese students must endure. Protesters have also been much too willing to ignore the fact that nearly all forms of education — to say nothing of advertisement, which we are inundated with — are propaganda by definition. George Washington’s apple tree. Basically every history book. Battle: Los Angeles. Those in ostensibly “free” societies seem less able to discern the pernicious effects of the propaganda they’re peddled.

Personal anecdote time. I attended public school in the US, where I was assigned books out of the Bible in sophomore and junior English class. Some of my classmates vehemently opposed it, but we all survived — and were better because of it (thanks Mr. Allen, Mrs. Long). If we never read Genesis, we wouldn’t know the meaning behind the movie Babel; I would never fully appreciate Chris Jericho’s WWE entrance music, which features the line, “Break down the walls of Jericho”; and Revelations — holy hell what a trip! Education isn’t a choice to study what you morally, philosophically, or personally favor and ignore all that you oppose because it isn’t “practical.” Algebra would then never be mandatory, because I can count on my fingers the times in real life I’ve used the Quadratic Equation (I would bunch my fingers into a fist). Education is about equipping yourself with a base of knowledge to properly function in society, where our common language consists not only of words but a shared experience.

On the specific issue of National Education in Hong Kong, I suppose we were always headed toward a compromise. I’m not sure if we’ve reached the right one, thanks to the hunger strike and massive civil unrest. The fault for that lies as much in the government’s failure to communicate and convince as anyone else, but I do wonder: why can’t, say, a Grade 3 secondary school student devote one class out of his or her eight per day to learn about the society — 1.4 billion strong — just north of the border? Are we really so worried that National Education courses would replace — instead of supplement — a teenager’s knowledge of British parliamentary democracy with Chinese Communism? As if ignoring one model of thought could validate the other model? People: let us not bask in ignorance while flaunting our purported bliss.

    11 Responses to “Mandatory National Education Plans Scrapped, But Who Really Wins?”

    1. name

      i work in a uni with a confucius institute. they receive books on “chinese history” to hand out to students during chinese culture classes. pure, unfiltered propaganda (pretty much like most US history books, according to my knowledge), but with some basic content that is useful, like general history line and dates. is it better than no chinese historical knowledge at all? yes. does it misrepresent china, especially in the contemporary era? yes. my solution to the problem: keep the chinese culture classes, but suggest the students > 1 manual to choose among, and leave the teachers free to choose too. require them to study chinese history, them let them free to learn about the cultural revolution as well as the glorious HK handover to the PRC .

      problem solved, you’re welcome

    2. robincheung

      Tao, I like your blog, it’s interesting and informative, but on this, you’re wrong. It’s your site, and of course you’re entitled to your opinion, but I’d suggest you meet with some of the students protesting on Saturday before writing them off in such cynical and condescending terms.

      Your notion that HK people are somehow ignorant to the basics of Chinese history is frankly insulting, and way off the mark – Average Hongkongers (like the Taiwanese) are, by and large, reasonably well-educated, and far more aware of their own (and by extension Chinese) history, not to mention their continued reverence for certain traditions and customs that have all but vanished from the mainland.

      The idea that Mainland Chinese people are somehow more “Chinese” than HongKongers by virtue of being taught “Chinese history” is laughable, have you ever attended a Mainland high school history class? or tried discussing pre-1949 Chinese history with an average mainlander under the age of 30?

      Those who protested at the weekend took a principled stand and should be applauded, lest you forget, these are Chinese people, young Chinese people, standing up to some of the more depressing and infantilizing aspects of the current one party system.

      • The Tao

        My intent wasn’t to disparage individual protesters, but I do mean to offer up an alternate view to the commonly accepted idea that moral education is necessarily demonic. What’s the worst that could happen? A child ends up liking the CPC? That’s the WORST thing, btw. Not sure that merits hunger strikes.

        Of course, I understand the protests have evolved into a protest against more than simply education. That was inevitable, and good on young Hong Kongers for their opinions.

      • Gil

        The HK government self-pwned on this and has no-one to blame but itself, just like with Article 23. Is there a place for civics classes in HK education? Absolutely. Chinese history? Absolutely. Sell it like that and it’s totally uncontroversial.

        Instead what they did was give funding to a Beijing-friendly nationalist group who served up a fresh, steaming load of “scare the hell out of the population”, turn a tone-deaf ear to criticism, double-down when faced with protest, get proxies in the media to accuse protesters of essentially being the tools of unfriendly foreign powers (you know, the UK and the US, who are actually quite popular in HK). And then they caved in!

        Things is, if they had really want to brain-wash people into loving the CCPotherland(TM) – and undoubtedly some of them do – they can acheive it much more easily than by introducing a compulasory class that students will likely sleep through. All they need do is continue the steady drip-drip of soft media controls, Mandarinisation, and rabble-rousing against the Japanese that we see unfolding at the moment.

    3. sascha

      yeah Tao, i feel you for trying to put something else out there, but I disagree. This is about so much more than education and brainwashing. It’s also about hope. Mainland kids, who routinely pass out or play games during their “moral and national educations” classes, saw this – by and large – as an inspiring stand by students and good people against the Machine. We should all give props to Hong Kong for winning this battle in the endless war against oppressive old men.

      also, dude, wall of text. turn that ish into some paragraphs.

    4. Andao

      Using the US as a co-example is a little rough. From elementary school through university, I remember being indoctrinated thoroughly about the evils of slavery over, and over, and over again. I remember hearing about the “Trail of Tears” a bunch also, although admittedly I think that should get more screen time.

      Have you seen the book they wanted to use? It’s dripping with propaganda, and nary a negative thing to say about the mainland. Several pages on how multiparty systems are bad (while HK itself has a multiparty system). And nothing about blanket media censorship.

      Then you have the story of a few hundred HK students being subsidized by the mainland to go visit Mao’s hometown and lay flower wreaths at his ancestral home. Seriously guys?

    5. stig

      I was at the protest Saturday. Beijing has inadvertently radicalized a whole new generation of Hong Kongers. he yung people are impassioned, driven and very well informed.

    6. stig

      I was at the protest Saturday. Beijing has inadvertently radicalized a whole new generation of Hong Kongers. The young people I met were impassioned and very well informed. In answer to the title, it seems obvious who the real winners here are: The people of Hong Kong. The proposal was defeated & young people are taking an interest in the direction of their country. Surely that qualifies as a good thing?

      • Gwai Lo

        The people of Hong Kong were the winners and I’ll also point out that the young people of Hong Kong fought with words and knowledge and got the outcome they wanted without any violence at all.

    7. Gwai Lo

      every country has their own version of history that is tailored to make the country its taught in look good to its people. American text books barely ever touch on the Japanese internment camps from WWII if its even mentioned at all.

      I think these people should fight to preserve the integrity of their culture. Hong Kong is not like the rest of China and no matter who hard they push I just don’t think it ever will be.

      I just hope that as this progresses over the next few years (I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of this) people remember what they’re trying to get done and not turn this into yet another protest fueled by violence.


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