The Hong Kong government has sought since 2007 to introduce "national education" courses into primary and secondary school curriculum, aimed at strengthening students' "national identity awareness" and nurturing patriotism towards China. The programme has met with increasing public opposition in recent years, with many in Hong Kong seeing it as a brainwashing attempt by the Chinese Communist Party to suppress dissent.
Leung bows down to Hong Kongers: no compulsory patriotism classes
The Hong Kong government on Saturday evening staged a dramatic eve-of-election climbdown on compulsory national education classes, saying that schools would be allowed to decide for themselves whether to teach the controversial subject.
The move, announced by chief executive Leung Chun-ying at government headquarters in Tamar, failed to satisfy protesters who have gathered in their thousands outside over the past two days, many of whom said they would continue to push for the wholesale scrapping of the scheme.
Flanked by his number two, chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and education minister Eddie Ng Hak-kim, Leung said, "I won’t push for compulsory national education in my five-year term."
"It will be up to schools on whether they want to run [national education], and whether as a separate subject on not," he said.
Trying to put the blame for the months-long standoff and protests on his predecessor, Leung said national education would not have been in his government's agenda if the previous administraton under Donald Tsang hadn't pushed it.
"I would rather concentrate on housing, poverty and other livelihood issues, because there is no such thing as national education in my election platform," he said.
Leung denied the announcement was linked to tomorrow’s pivotal Legislative Council elections or that he had to seek Beijing’s say-so before announcing the change of plans.
The chief executive said the three-year deadline to make national education a compulsory subject has been cancelled. Schools can decide when, how and whether they would implement it, he said.
The move came after critics derided the subject – set up to foster national belonging and identity – as a student “brainwashing” exercise.
In the original plan, primary schools were slated to voluntarily start implementing the subject this September, with it turning compulsory next year, and secondary schools following suit.
Students, teachers and parent groups have been hunger striking and camping outside the Central Government Offices in Admiralty since August 30. Organisers claimed that 120,000 protestors packed the site yesterday, with police putting the figure at 36,000.
Reaction to the landmark climbdown was mixed with Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan saying Leung’s proposals were close to what they wanted, but attention needed to be paid to whether government would give preferential treatment to schools who do implement national education.
The Civic Party’s Tanya Chan, on the other hand, blasted Leung’s move as fodder to placate voters in tomorrow’s Legislative Council elections.