Our children need a basic knowledge of their country

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 11:23pm


During the consultation on moral and national education last year, a document on the new curriculum quoted ancient Chinese writer Mengzi, or Mencius: 'The empire has its basis in the state, the state in the family, and the family in one's own self.' I think we all agree that children should learn about their roles as family members and citizens, and how society organises itself.

The last government planned moral and national education as an extension of the existing moral and civic education and promised that schools would be free to choose the teaching materials they use. Even so, it has become Hong Kong's latest controversy, with some parents and students accusing the government of wanting to brainwash children.

Much of the blame lies with one booklet - not intended as a textbook - produced by the National Education Services Centre. While ignoring China's very real problems, it praised the country's one-party system and criticised America's multiparty structure. This clear bias set off alarm bells among many people. (In fairness, the centre published a guide to the structure of China's government which has been very valuable to me as a delegate to the National People's Congress.)

Some people want moral and national education to be postponed. Yet parents and schools are already free to delay it if they wish. They have three years in which to consider materials, teaching methods and the findings of the government's committee on the new curriculum.

Why not just scrap it? It must be tempting, especially with the Legislative Council election coming. But this assumes that our children do not need to learn about China. As a parent who helps to run a school, I strongly believe they do.

Many Hong Kong people - including me - received little or no education about the country we live in. If you think about it, it is shocking that many of us can name and describe California, Texas, British Columbia and Ontario, but are not able to tell Hebei from Hubei .

This is nothing to do with worshipping the Communist Party. It is about having the basic knowledge that enables you to understand, discuss and - if necessary - criticise how the country is structured and run. We owe it to our children to make sure they learn these basics; China will be an important part of their future, and ignorance of the country will put them at a disadvantage. Imagine what mainlanders will think of citizens who don't even know basic geography.

At the same time, we must accept that many - probably most - Hong Kong people do to some extent feel apart from the mainland. Many are conscious of a Hong Kong identity and culture. They do not emotionally buy into 'patriotic' praise of China's government or strong nationalism. The impact of mass tourism here by mainlanders has probably not helped. These are not necessarily very political people or aligned to the pro-democracy camp; some would call themselves neutral or pro-establishment.

These people are not going to have their opinions changed by force, and they are not going to let anyone teach their children things they think are wrong. An increasingly prosperous, fair and open country is what will win their hearts and minds over time, not brainwashing.

This is why that booklet was such a blunder. The Communist Party has done bad things as well as good things. You cannot pretend June 4, 1989 didn't happen. My own sons have asked me about it, and I have told them and explained why people gather in Victoria Park every year. As they grow up, they can read more about it and judge for themselves - and do so with their sense of Hong Kong's own context and values. In order to do that, they need access to different views and arguments. And in order to understand them fully, they need a sound, fundamental, factual knowledge of their country.

I hope parent-teacher associations and schools will bear this in mind when they decide how to introduce moral and national education. They are the people who will be deciding what knowledge and skills children receive from studying this subject.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council