National education fears reflect Hong Kong's lack of faith
Kelly Yang says our aversion to mainland influence has clouded our judgment on national education - Hong Kong should trust its schools, teachers and parents to do right by its children
As the fight against national education shifts from the streets to the schools, many fear that our children may still be in danger of being brainwashed. To the estimated 100,000 protesters who occupied Tamar, chief executive Leung Chun-ying's pledge not to make national education compulsory during his term was a victory, but an incomplete one. The fight is not over against national education and that dirty little "b" word - brainwashing.
But what does "brainwashing" even mean? If it means influencing people to think a certain way, then brainwashing is nothing new. It was around long before Leung took office and it will remain a part of education, and life, long after his term ends.
Before we told schoolchildren to love China, we told them to love Jesus. There are currently 276 Catholic schools and kindergartens in Hong Kong. In these schools, about 200,000 children are taught religion from very early ages. Is this not a form of brainwashing?
Besides religion, many children in Hong Kong are brainwashed to believe that success in life is defined by material goods, that chores are for helpers and that their school is the best. I once had to break up a fist fight between two students over whose school was the best in Hong Kong. Many Hong Kong children think Harvard is the best university in the world. My son thinks that if a computer is not a Mac, it's not a computer. He didn't get that from me; he's been brainwashed by his school's undying devotion to Apple.
So what? Is brainwashing really that bad? I was brainwashed as a child; it did not ruin my education. Growing up in the US, I was made to say the pledge of allegiance every day and sing the national anthem. I learned about the heroic deeds of Christopher Columbus and US presidents (only to realise much later the many atrocities committed). This did not impair my ability to think critically and independently in secondary school or higher education. Similarly, many people who go to religious schools leave as agnostics.
The protesters fear national education not because of brainwashing but because of the subject of such brainwashing - China.
At the core, Hong Kong people don't want to be told to love China. They don't even like China. Recent reports show that mainland buyers account for as much as 40 per cent of new-home sales here, thereby pricing out Hong Kong citizens. With statistics like this, what's there to love? The fact that we're going to rent forever? A recent poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong showed that the number of people who saw themselves primarily as Chinese - as opposed to Hong Kong citizens - had plunged to a 13-year low.
This sentiment holds true inside the classroom, too. Go to any school and ask children what they think of China and they'll probably tell you how much they hate it. The fact that even our six-year-olds hate China shows brainwashing on China already exists - just not in favour of it.
Furthermore, the fact that Leung's concession is not even viewed as a complete victory shows the extent of the Hong Kong people's dislike and distrust of the new administration, the leadership in Beijing, and the blurry and disappearing split between the two.
The thing is, even if individual schools decide to offer national education, it's not going to work. The whole point of national education is to foster a love of China. This won't work as long as Hong Kong people - including teachers - don't love China.
At the schools which decide to go ahead with the subject, teachers are the ones who will deliver it to our children. And they will put their own spin on the material. They always do. Hong Kong teachers are not going to teach a biased, distorted version of Chinese modern history. Have you ever met a Hong Kong local school teacher who is a pro-Beijing fanatic? I haven't.
We need to trust our schools and our teachers. No self-respecting educator in Hong Kong will teach a biased version of Chinese modern history. And if there are any inaccuracies in the texts or teachings, that's where we as parents come in. As Hongkongers, we enjoy freedom of information and freedom of speech. Parents can and should influence children. If there are fallacies in the teaching materials - and even without national education, there are - it's up to us, as parents, to point them out to our children.
Ultimately, if it's love of China that Beijing wants to achieve, national education won't get us there. One cannot learn love from a textbook; one has to feel it. If the people, including the teachers, don't feel the love, Hong Kong children never will.
Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School. firstname.lastname@example.org