National education in Hong Kong

Let national education take its course

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 April, 2008, 12:00am

In his policy address last year, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen said: 'To prepare ourselves for the next decade, we must have a better understanding of our country's development and a stronger sense of our national and cultural identity.' To underline the importance of national education, Mr Tsang went to great lengths to repeat the call made by President Hu Jintao during a visit to mark the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty.

On June 30, Mr Hu said: 'We should put more emphasis on national education for the youth in Hong Kong and promote exchanges between them and the young people of the mainland so that they will carry forward the Hong Kong people's great tradition of loving the motherland and loving Hong Kong.'

It is not surprising, therefore, that the issue is now on the Commission on Strategic Development's agenda. After a meeting on Monday, Central Policy Unit head Lau Siu-kai said members agreed, in broad terms, that national education should be strengthened. Professor Lau quoted a survey commissioned two years ago which showed that almost half of the respondents had never visited the mainland. In view of that, he said, some members had proposed plans to encourage people to visit. It was also suggested that Chinese history be made compulsory in secondary schools.

Indeed, the list of 'to-do' initiatives could fill the rest of this column. True, the breathtaking changes on the mainland over the past decade have further highlighted the importance of 'understanding China'. Exchanges and interaction across the border have been on an upward trend since 1978, despite hitting problems during times of tension, such as the Tiananmen Square protests. However, the trend has proved to be irreversible.

If the 'open and reform' policy pioneered by Deng Xiaoping 30 years ago launched the first 'go north' wave of Hongkongers, the past decade has seen other profound changes.

More professionals have moved north to pursue their careers. The Pearl River Delta has become a popular weekend destination for Hongkongers. More community groups have launched charitable projects on the mainland, ranging from English classes to building schools and other facilities in poverty-stricken areas.

Most major newspapers and electronic media have set up bureaus in the larger cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, to provide fuller coverage of China's developments.

All this has happened without a directive from the central and Hong Kong authorities. It could even be argued that entrepreneurs, professionals and ordinary people in society know better than bureaucrats and policymakers what is really going on in the mainland.

If leaders in Beijing and Hong Kong are still unhappy with the development of national education in the city, it is not just because much more could be done. Few would disagree with that. More importantly, however, they feel uneasy about what they deem to be a mistaken, or even biased, attitude towards the mainland.

People's dissenting views about developments in China, in particular on sensitive issues like human rights, are often dismissed as a lack of understanding about the practical situation in the country. The solution, therefore, would be to enhance national education, it is argued.

At the other extreme are those who hold ingrained negative views about the ruling Communist Party, dismissing national education as political indoctrination.

The two polarised views aside, most Hongkongers have a balanced and down-to-earth attitude about Chinese history and culture. At best, any excessive, top-down directives about national education may just have a cosmetic effect. At worst, they could create more suspicion and mistrust.

Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large.