As expected, the proposed introduction of national education in schools has triggered much debate on exactly what students are to be educated about. Critics and sceptics worry that it will become 'brainwashing', imposing government-mandated politically correct viewpoints on schoolchildren at the expense of alternative perspectives and tolerance of political dissent. Supporters, by contrast, consider it essential in inculcating a sense of national identity.
Fourteen years after reunification, the sense of nationhood among Hong Kong people remains somewhat ambivalent. The suppression of Chinese national sentiments during colonial rule and the ideological schism over revolution in contemporary China have led to baggage filled with scepticism and alienation.
Furthermore, circumstances often discourage the debate of national matters. While Hong Kong people are sometimes blamed for not caring enough about national developments, they are at the same time cautioned against being too immersed in mainland affairs, which are said to belong to the 'other' system, especially over human rights and other politically sensitive issues.
If we are serious about national education, we should aim to groom an active national citizenship, instead of a passive and superficial form of national identification. National education, if done well, gives people a sense of belonging, solidarity and pride in being part of a community of ethnic, cultural and historical affinity. Such bonding is essential to purposeful pursuits.
Narrow-minded national or ethnic sentiments, however, breed exclusion, prejudice and even hostility towards people of another race or country. Throughout history, wars and atrocities have occurred in the name of nationalism; it led to the Holocaust and other ethnic cleansing. How to balance national pride and cross-national and cross-cultural inclusiveness is a great challenge for leaders and teachers all around the world.
In national education, what can be learned or inculcated about the national identity? Ideally, we learn to appreciate our nation's peoples, culture, history, and geographical and demographic features. These apparently innocent elements can sometimes be very controversial, because wars and hostilities are often a result of drawing boundaries and demarcating differences precisely on the basis of ethnicity, geography, and cultural and religious affiliation.
Things become worse when it comes to how contemporary history is to be interpreted. For China, the perennial rivalry between the Kuomintang and communist versions of history of the past century, and the inhibitions, or even ban, on a full discourse on the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 Tiananmen incident are notable cases in point. National education, like citizenship education, cannot be totally devoid of politics or even ideology, and politics often serves to divide instead of unite.
So what will national education achieve within the context of a school curriculum? Suspicions of brainwashing are not a sufficient reason for ignoring the need for and merit of a national identity, just as one would not question the purpose of civic education, which may entail controversies and diverse views about institutions, rules, norms and common values of a society.
Yet we must be careful of the risk of promoting narrow nationalism or patriotism, or only an official definition of national identity. We must allow room for students, and indeed citizens, to study, understand and reflect on the 'nation' from multiple perspectives - appreciating national achievements while also not ignoring national failures. National identity is not the same as undoubting loyalty to one's national government and what it does.
All these complications mean it's not easy to implement national education. We should accept such complications and 'grey areas', and leave them to conscientious and honest discussions and reflections by students and teachers. Examinations with rigid right or wrong answers do not help. Neither should the education authorities set a very detailed curriculum. What is needed are 'space' and 'time' within the school curriculum, in both the material and intellectual senses, to facilitate purposeful and critical inquiry.
The current debates on the government's consultation paper on moral and national education should be a good test of whether such a spirit of inquiry is possible. Just attacking national education as brainwashing and indoctrination or defending it as patriotism would be to miss this important point.
Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think tank