HONG KONG — If Beijing’s plan was to make young Hong Kongers more docile and patriotic through a program of “moral and national education,” it seems to have already backfired.
On Wednesday, 11 hunger strikers — several of them students — continued their campaign to force the government to withdraw the program, which is being introduced in several elementary schools this fall. The night before, thousands of students and parents demonstrated outside the government’s central offices to protest against the curriculum, calling for Chief Executive Chun-ying Leung to step down.
While the stated purpose of the curriculum is to cultivate pride in mainland China, fears that it would amount to “brainwashing” have so far achieved the opposite, spurring young people to organize against China’s perceived encroachment on Hong Kong’s civil liberties.
“The government ignores our feelings, so we need to use our bodies,” says Tak-Wan Chan, a 23-year-old university student who has been on hunger strike for 87 hours. At stake, he says, is Hong Kong’s special status as the most independent city in the Chinese world.
“This is brainwashing, and we need to fight for our future. I think that mainland politicians want to control us. Our freedom of speech is less now.”
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Roughly 50 tents now line the government building’s normally barren plaza. Young volunteers with badges wander around handing out water bottles and pastries. Several kiosks distribute food, toiletries, and other donated supplies. Early on Wednesday afternoon, a few energetic teens drummed on buckets and led the crowd in chants of, “Say no to brainwashing!”
One of the volunteers was Christine Ning, 18, who skipped out on classes for a day to help the hunger strikers.
“China is a place that won’t let their people have freedom to think or free speech," she said. "They can’t log into Facebook, and they delete posts on Weibo. We don’t want this to happen to the next generation.” She was referring to Sina Weibo, a Chinese equivalent to Twitter.
Many parents share their concerns. Katherine Wu, a mother of two young children, visited the protest during a break from her nearby office. Her children, she said, already studied Chinese history and government — “commonsense things” — in school, so she did not see why a national education program was necessary.
“It’s very worrying, that’s the word I would use. If it’s all about loving the Communist Party, people are afraid of that more than anything.”
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The policy has generated particular controversy since July, when a pamphlet distributed to local schools praised China’s Communist Party as “progressive, selfless, and united.” An estimated 90,000 people took part in a protest against the policy at the end of July.
While the government has consistently stood by the education plan, it said in a recent statement that there is “room for discussion” on whether it could be withdrawn.
“The important thing is to ensure that the public concern or the parents' and the students' worry about the so-called brainwashing will not happen,” said Chief Secretary for Administration Carrie Lam at a press conference on Tuesday night.
Some locals believe the protest has gone to far in its defiance of the government. Alex Lo, a columnist for the South China Morning Post, wrote in a column that “the insults, deliberate humiliation and rudeness leveled” at government officials was “disturbing.”
One editorial program for the station ATV called the teenagers who organized the protest “very poor at playing politics” and “willful young ruffians” who were unknowingly acting at the behest of local politicians backed by the US and the UK.
The station received 10,000 complaints after the broadcast, a record.
National education has meanwhile become a major issue in local elections scheduled for this Sunday, with pro-democracy candidates promising to “stop Hong Kong from going red."