False start for national education
Hong Kong parents do not often take to the streets to protest unless there are compelling reasons to do so. On Sunday, tens of thousands of people braved scorching heat and brought along toddlers and babies in pushchairs to protest against the compulsory national education programme. The controversy has quickly turned into an election issue in the September polls. Calls to boycott classes in the new academic year have also been heard. It is only wise for the government to cool down the boiling sentiment and put the curriculum on hold.
The protest organiser said 90,000 had participated. The police put the figure at 32,000 at the peak. Regardless of the actual turnout, it was a sizeable crowd. The protesters took to the streets for a simple but important reason. They want their children to grow up in a liberal environment. They do not want them to be brainwashed with pro-communist ideologies. In response, the government offered to set up a broad-based committee to monitor the curriculum. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying went further to ease people's worries, saying the reference teaching materials will be uploaded to a government website for public perusal. Although he denied national education was a political assignment from Beijing, he stopped short of delaying its implementation.
One can only speculate whether the deadlock could have been averted had the government rolled out the measures earlier. But the outcome speaks volumes about the education chief's lack of experience in weathering a political crisis, which was sparked by a biased booklet produced by a government-funded education centre. While some may find the additional safeguards assuring, those who marched are unlikely to have their minds put at ease. The turnout is a clear message to Leung that the curriculum lacks public support. Insisting on the timetable will only fuel scepticism and mistrust.
There is nothing wrong with enhancing students' understanding of the country. After all, the city was returned to China 15 years ago. National education remains a right step forward as long as different perspectives are presented impartially for students to make informed judgments. Instilling a stronger sense of patriotism and Chinese identity is clearly different from nurturing support for the state and the Communist Party.
A decade ago, former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa upset parents and teachers when he hastily pushed through a series of education reforms. The painful experience is a good reminder that all reforms require stakeholders' support. If schools and parents remain unconvinced that the government has adopted the right approach, the new curriculum is unlikely to be successful.