The order seemed trivial, even obvious: Hong Kong elementary school students should read illustrated books on Chinese traditions and learn about famous places like the Forbidden City in Beijing or the Great Wall.
But the aim was only in part to generate interest in the past. The main purpose of the new program guidelines announced this month by the Hong Kong government is much more ambitious: to use these historical narratives to instill in the city’s younger residents a deep affinity with mainland China – and, with she, an unwavering loyalty to their leaders and the dictatorial tactics they employ.
The guidelines say that students should develop “a sense of belonging to the country, an affection for the Chinese people, a sense of national identity, as well as an awareness of national security and a sense of responsibility to protect it and defend it “.
In its efforts to quell dissent, the Chinese government has imposed a series of strict restrictions on Hong Kong, including new rules announced this week to prevent people deemed disloyal to the Communist Party from running for office.
But the strategy goes far beyond simple repression. The Hong Kong government has also launched a massive indoctrination campaign for the next generation. And he uses history as a potentially powerful tool to instill obedience and patriotism in people.
In 2019, when mass protests against the government swept across the city, pro-Beijing officials accused the education system of promoting liberal values and radicalizing Hong Kong.
Determined to avoid a repeat of the protests, they are now aggressively promoting a specific narrative aimed at strengthening the grip of the Chinese Communist Party over the former British colony.
The authorities view this narrative as a necessary corrective measure to ensure stability and unity. To its detractors, this is social engineering – a deceptive and dystopian campaign to shape the minds of children and adolescents.
In some cases, the government has literally rewritten history. He sponsored the creation of a collection of “Chronicles of Hong Kong”, in 66 volumes, designed to cost 100 million dollars (551 million reais) and which promises to present a “complete, systematic and objective” account of the last 7000 years of city. References to past cooperation with Western countries – which have been reprinted for decades without modification – have disappeared from official yearbooks that summarize the government’s accomplishments.
In addition to national security courses for schools, the government is reviewing and halving the teaching time spent in a discipline called “liberal studies”. Pro-Beijing politicians say that classes on the subject, devoted to promoting critical thinking, have poisoned the heads of young people against the government. Officials say the new curriculum should teach facts about the recent history of Hong Kong and China, but not ask students to analyze them.
The government education office denies that its new national security program represents brainwashing. In a statement released Monday (22), he qualified this description as “perverse”.
Disputes over history occur in democracies and authoritarian states, between academics, governments and the general public. Historians are the first to recognize that there is no objective history. Hong Kong’s anti-government activists have also portrayed historical events selectively to gain public support.
Even so, the Chinese government, which regained control from the UK in 1997, is determined to control the historical narrative and is uniquely adept at doing so. In mainland China, historical facts of great significance, including the massacre of protesters in Tianamen Square by the government in 1989, have been largely erased from public memory by censorship and official rules demanding “patriotic education.” .
Critics fear that this model will be taken to Hong Kong. The city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, recently said that the “Hong Kong Chronicles” project has helped residents, “especially the younger generation, to better understand the inseparable relationship between Hong Kong and the country.”
Liberal studies professor Chan Hei Tung said the flattened narrative promoted by the government will only drive students away from the city and country the authorities want them to love. Previously, he used stories about Hong Kong’s past to encourage students to analyze current issues. As part of the new government initiative, he said, “all students need to do is learn by heart, follow and respect the authorities.”
“The interaction between their generation, their city and society as a whole will disappear,” said Chan, who is also a member of the executive committee of a pro-democracy teachers’ union. “They are not participating in a commitment to transform history.”
As soon as the first volume, at nearly 800 pages, of the Chronicles of Hong Kong project was published in December, pro-democracy activists criticized it for calling the Occupy Central movement in 2014 illegal. The chronicle did not mention a march of at least 350,000 people on July 1, 2014 which helped launch the movement. But he cited a counter-demonstration that would have attracted 100,000 people, police said.
Lau Chi-pang, professor of history at Lingnan University in Hong Kong and one of the project’s directors, said he hoped the chronicles would serve as a “very useful source” for teachers.
Lau said that the chronicles’ authors only seek to present the facts, not to pass judgment on them. But he recognized that, like all historians, he also gave a political perspective to his work. “I have always been considered a pro-government scholar and I do not deny it,” he said.
Although the government’s emphasis on modern history has attracted the most attention, the criticisms extend to antiquity. A chapter of the government directory is devoted to history, starting with archaeological remains from around 6,000 years ago.
Between 1997 and 2016, the yearbook has always said that these prehistoric cultures appeared “locally, independent of any major external influence”. But that placement disappeared in 2017. Instead, according to the yearbook, Hong Kong culture “grew out of influence from central China.”
The ubiquitous mentions of “liberal British rule” over Hong Kong also faded in subsequent years. Hong Kong’s participation in the “Allied cause” during World War II has become “the anti-Japanese cause,” echoing a slogan used by the Communist Party to fuel nationalist fervor.
Bao Phu, owner of a publisher focused on modern Chinese history, said the reassessment of the history of British influence on Hong Kong was warranted. During the colonial period, the Chinese people of Hong Kong were subject to segregation and racism, which is hardly mentioned in annuals.
But, for him, it is also a mistake to try to completely erase the legacy of this period: “They aim to eradicate the identity of Hong Kong, which is different from the Chinese identity.”
Amy Lam, who participated in the 2019 protests, said her friends who have young children fear that the program’s new guidelines will prohibit children from learning to consider opposing views.
Lam is more confident that his own daughter, 15, has already started to develop the necessary skills. Still, she can’t wait to see her daughter finish high school and study at a university abroad.
“In no time she will be out of the education system here. I think we will have to stand firm until then and hope that things don’t change too much, ”she said. “But I am sorry for the younger children, especially those who are just starting elementary school, and their parents. It won’t be easy. “