HK needs to educate its youth

Updated: 2015-01-09 05:34

By Sonny Lo(HK Edition)

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Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series on youth problems in Hong Kong. Part one addresses the radicalization of youth. Part two will address the need to "de-colonize" our education system.

Since China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong, the rise of youth radicalism has come to the fore as never before. Mass protests against Article 23 legislation on July 1, 2003 appear to have intensified the politicization of youth, culminating in the anti-national education campaign of summer 2012 and the "Occupy Central" movement from September to December 2014.

Some even attempted to emulate Taiwan's students in trying to "capture" the Legislative Council (LegCo) building during a debate over the New Territories development plan. The more militant among them destroyed a window at the entrance of the building. All signs point to the "Taiwanization" of Hong Kong politics. So what triggered the political radicalization of Hong Kong's youth?

First, Hong Kong's primary and secondary education systems fail to place sufficient emphasis on the obligations of young people. Almost all textbooks on social and civic affairs tend to focus on the individual and collective rights enjoyed by Hong Kong people. An overwhelming majority of textbook writers have failed to balance personal rights with obligations to society and the nation. Under the circumstances, many young people have a lopsided view of their rights and neglect their obligations.

To compound the problem, netizens in Hong Kong usually obtain news about the mainland from the Internet, which tend to be critical of the central government and biased against the establishment in its portrayal of political and social events in Hong Kong. This situation has persisted since 1997 without a genuine attempt at reforming the curriculum at the secondary school level.

Sadly, when plans were being made for national education to be made part of the secondary school curriculum, it was criticized by some parents and politicians as "brainwashing" with sinister overtones. This needless politicization of the issue eventually forced the government to shelve the introduction of national education in September 2012, thereby perpetuating our young people's distorted view of their country. This issue remains unresolved and must not be ignored. It will require a delicate touch to re-introduce a subject encompassing Chinese culture, society and history, or perhaps it should be incorporated into other subjects such as those dealing with history, civics, politics, and economics in a far more consolidated and balanced manner than ever before.

Second, the current superficiality of the Chinese History curriculum means many Hong Kong youth have a relatively poor knowledge of recent developments in the nation. The fact that in the senior level of secondary school, Chinese History is treated as an elective only exacerbates the problem. In its place, students frequently resort to the social media, or participate in political activities to learn about Hong Kong and the mainland. The result is a shallow understanding of the country's history and developments on the mainland since the founding of People Republic of China in 1949. Its extraordinary achievements, such as bringing hundreds of millions of citizens out of poverty and its peaceful rise in terms of economic growth and international influence on the world stage, were either mentioned in brief terms in school textbooks, or simply omitted from the narrative. The students would have been proud of their motherland's unprecedented achievements in human history, and indeed proud to be called "Chinese" rather than "Hong Kong people".

Third, ironically, while Chinese History in secondary schools was marginalized, Liberal Studies has become a compulsory subject. Its pedagogy routinely utilizes media reports in support of the two sides of an argument - a controversial diametrically antagonistic approach to learning without a deeper understanding of the country through in-depth knowledge and research. It thus leads students to a critical perception of the nation as they do not fully understand the complex contextual circumstances of the media reports, let alone the political bias and background of some media.

Fourth, the rise of youth radicalism is accompanied by the emergence of populism in Hong Kong politics. Populism emerged in mid-2003 due to the mass protests against the proposed legislation on internal security in compliance with Article 23 of the Basic Law. The opposition was attributed to the government's failure to convincingly justify the bill's introduction leading to charges of "ulterior motives" in the government's push for national education.

In short, Hong Kong failed in its bid to introduce "national education" primarily because of inadequate consultation and a failure to win over the stakeholders. Because of this some parents, harboring alarmist views of the exercise, together with other habitually anti-Beijing politicians and media, in cahoots with extremist student activists, were able to derail plans for its introduction in 2012.

The fact is that if the initial promotion and liaison work to win over stakeholders for national education had been handled more diplomatically, the result could have been very different. As it was, the issue was distorted by politicians campaigning for Legislative Council elections and student activists using demagoguery tactics. Clearly populist politics, made easier by persistently inadequate knowledge of the nation, had won on this occasion.

Fifth, some Hong Kong youth, fiercely identifying themselves as Hong Kong people, viewed the influx of mainland tourists and even mainland students and talents, with animosity, as a threat to their rights, job opportunities and entitlement to local resources. The most extremist among them even argued that Hong Kong should be seen as a "nation" with the right to self-determination. Sadly, very few teachers bothered to debunk such a clearly misleading notion.

It is most disquieting to note that "Hongkongism" seems to have taken root with some people, albeit a tiny minority. This has been the source of conflict between them and some visiting mainland tourists. It is an incendiary situation in which both the government and school authorities, with the help of all responsible citizens, should do their utmost to ensure that "Hongkongism" does not spread and deteriorate into some sort of destructive schism. It is imperative for all parties to try to de-radicalize our young people, thereby minimizing social conflict in Hong Kong.

The author is professor and head of the Department of Social Sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.

(HK Edition 01/09/2015 page1)