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.
National education climbdown wins no friends
Lau Nai-keung says backers have been let down by Leung's poor timing
A day before the Legislative Council election, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying made an awkward climbdown on national education. Surrounded for days by tens of thousands of demonstrators and several hunger strikers vowing to oppose the national education curriculum he inherited from his predecessor, naturally officials were worried that the situation might get out of hand. Panicked, this bunch of political rookies were inclined to advise their boss to make concessions.
Short of withdrawing the curriculum altogether, Leung announced there would be no deadline for its introduction, and individual schools are free to decide when to start and what to teach. To those who braved unspeakable pressure to come forward to show their support for national education, this amounts to an unprincipled sell-out, and came at a most inconvenient time, when morale was expected to be a factor in the election the next day.
In politics, timing is everything. If such an announcement had been made a week before, it might have won applause all around, but doing so at the last minute before a decisive electoral battle pleased no one.
Indeed, the election results in some areas ran contrary to expectations and opinion poll indications, and many would ascribe the unfavourable outcome to Leung's clumsy political move. The anti-national education demonstrators were not pleased either, and were the first to announce they were determined to push on until the curriculum is formally withdrawn.
The pro-establishment camp in the new legislature is suspicious of the government's real intention and political will, and so the Leung administration will have to live with weak and wavering support against a more belligerent and vocal minority.
Worse still, this sign of weakness will lead to further provocation. It seems that as long as you shout loud and long enough, the government will sooner or later succumb to your demands. Leung is courting trouble.
In delegating the implementation of a controversial subject entirely to schools, it also diffuses the political struggle to these education establishments. All schools now face the dilemma of whether to implement a national education curriculum, when, and how. Now that the issue is framed as a "brainwashing" conspiracy, the decision is about whether each school sides with good or evil.
The dozen or so primary schools which decided earlier to take the plunge are now in a most awkward position, which will in the end affect their student intake and ultimately their survival. Practically every secondary school now has an allegedly alumni-organised "concern group" to monitor their alma mater's national education implementation status.
In the end, in such an atmosphere of white terror, no school will dare go ahead, which will suit the dissidents just fine. By putting all school principals in this predicament, Leung will, in the end, win no friends and influence no people. In fact, he and Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim will be prime public enemies among educationists.
With so much mishandling of the issue, national education has now become a moral yardstick supposedly measuring the conscience of each and every one of us. We all have to make a stand somewhere down the road. With opinion polls and commentaries bombarding us day in, day out, soon we will all know what to say and how to behave. For, if a person were to utter a politically incorrect opinion or perform an unacceptable act, he or she would immediately be demonised as having been brainwashed or, worse still, an agent of the arch-devil, the Communists.
Now that the two national education centres have been closed, all kinds of student exchange programmes will soon dwindle. Besides, no parents would want their children to be seen to be taking part in a brainwashing exercise. We will live happily ever after in an isolated island in the middle of nowhere, all engaging in the noble occupations of farming and fishing.
Lau Nai-keung is a member of the Basic Law Committee of the NPC Standing Committee, and also a member of the Commission on Strategic Development