Patriots and the party

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 February, 2011, 12:00am

The Jesuits, a Catholic order with a long history of successful indoctrination, have a famous maxim: 'Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.' They are not alone in believing that if you can mould children's ideas at a young age, you are likely to mould them for life. Rather belatedly, the dear old hand-picked Hong Kong delegates to China's two main consultative bodies have cottoned on to this notion and devised a plan to disseminate patriotic propaganda in schools.

As ever, those bent on peddling propaganda to the young indignantly declare that they are doing no such thing; instead, they couch their mission in terms of 'providing better understanding', and the like. Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, the convenor of the group that will carry out this mission, even went so far as to insist that 'this is not patriotic education or brainwashing since it is voluntary in nature'. Li must have developed an unconscious sense of exquisite irony in suggesting that, somehow, because this is all 'voluntary', it cannot possibly be propaganda.

Grown-ups, however, will find it more useful to recall the slogan of seeking 'truth from facts', which was seen everywhere in China during the late 1970s when Deng Xiaoping's reformist mission was initiated.

The facts are that the Hong Kong members of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference are desperate to find a role for themselves not just to assure their masters of their impeccable patriotic credentials, but to persuade a sceptical Hong Kong public that they have some relevance. A mission to 'educate' schoolchildren seems to fit the bill rather well.

Every nation is understandably keen to engender pride in its achievements and history, but a one-party state always has another agenda, which is to secure support for the status quo and to insist that the ruling party alone embodies patriotism. To ignore this context is to be blind to the reality of the current situation.

There have been similar endeavours to promote closer identification with the mainland but what kind of identification is being proposed? Is it, for example, the fierce patriotism of the late Szeto Wah, a lifelong educator who believed that a democratic China would provide the fullest expression of Chinese people's aspirations? Or could it even be the patriotism of the hundreds of thousands of local people who took to the streets to mourn - to the accompaniment of patriotic songs - the victims of the 1989 democracy movement crackdown?

Clearly, Li's friends consider this to be the wrong kind of patriotism because their attempt to mould children's perceptions of the new China will be exclusively carried out by office-holders in the service of a one-party state.

They claim that they are keen on 'dialogue', but the reality is that a genuine dialogue needs the expression of all points of view. This would mean encouraging a real debate about the Chinese nation, including participants holding views other than their own. Instead, they pretend that the universe of views on this subject is contained within their ranks.

But will they get away with it? Who can forget the failed attempt by the chief executive and his acolytes to go round schools mustering support for his so-called constitutional reform campaign. At every turn, they were faced with articulate and impressively well-informed young people posing challenging questions. No wonder that, this time round, the organisers are thinking of holding their sessions behind closed doors, in case of embarrassment.

Under the 'one country, two systems' concept, Hong Kong enjoys unique freedoms within the context of a one-party state. Instead of cherishing them and straining every sinew to ensure that the system works, this band of office seekers seem to be devoted to tearing down the walls that preserve the two systems.

If they had a scintilla of sincerity in wishing to engender pride in the Chinese nation, they would not only be the most ardent defenders of the ostensible aims of Hong Kong's Basic Law, but they would also be promoting it in spirit as well as in word.

Maybe the body called Friends of Hong Kong, which is organising this campaign, should try and extend the hand of friendship to the entire community. For now, we will have to rely on schoolchildren to keep them from their worst excesses.

Fortunately, some of us have more confidence in the intelligence of Hong Kong's young people than their newly acquired 'friends'. I rather suspect that, once they get out there in the schools, they will face some tricky moments. It is hard to think of another group of people who more richly deserve a reality check of this kind.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur