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 and the quest for a Hong Kong identity
Regina Ip says the divisive debate on the introduction of national education reflects a larger issue at hand - our continuing quest for a Hong Kong identity that most can agree on
Whether you like it or not, national education had been high on the government's agenda for years, featuring in five of the seven policy addresses by former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. Earlier this year, legislators approved funding of over HK$600 million for schools to implement national education as a new subject. There was no lack of schools gearing up to teach it.
Yet, on the eve of this year's Legislative Council election and in the face of mass rallies against the introduction of the subject, the government said schools would be free to decide whether to implement it, "on the basis of their professional judgment", as well as how and when to do so. Last month, the government backtracked further and announced that its guidelines for the curriculum would be shelved, effectively stopping the launch of the subject in the tracks.
It was a great victory for the opponents of the subject, but it seems to symbolise everything that has gone wrong in the implementation of "one country, two systems".
The government's withdrawal left many in the lurch. Schools which have been taking students to the mainland in an honest effort to help them learn more about their country have been labelled fawning leftists. At the opposite extreme, schools or teachers who are tempted to use the classroom to vent their anger at the communist regime now have unfettered opportunity to do so, in the absence of a curriculum guide and professionally drafted teaching materials.
Worse still, for those who want to strengthen the sense of national identity among Hong Kong's youth, national education is now a lost cause, just like the national security legislation that the government tried to push through the legislature in 2003. Despite Beijing's solid political and economic support for "one country, two systems" in the past 15 years, is every policy initiative intended to promote national unity and acceptance of China's sovereignty doomed to fail in Hong Kong?
Many played a part in the fiasco: the former chief executive who was charged with strengthening Hong Kong people's sense of belonging to the country but never applied his heart and mind seriously to the task; the reluctant subordinates to whom the task was delegated; the civil servants who played a key role in producing the curriculum guidelines but hid behind the advisory committees when things started to turn sour; those who contracted out the production of teaching materials to the National Education Services Centre, which in turn subcontracted it to the Baptist University's Advanced Institute for Contemporary China Studies; and the ailing former education secretary and his top aides who authorised all that.
No doubt the current administration inherited a poorly phrased curriculum guide and some flawed teaching materials - which smacked of spreading Communist Party propaganda but produced the opposite effect - but its own inept political handling of the issue helped create a perfect storm.
The new administration's inexperience in balancing national requirements with the city's hypersensitivities about its separate identity saw officials stumbling into a minefield.
Experience of teaching citizenship in many other parts of the world is replete with similar tales of the authorities being accused of using education as a political vehicle for narrow, nationalistic purposes, or faced with unpalatable choices when under pressure to put together a sanitised national history.
Talk to a thirty-something from Britain and you will learn that the national story disappeared from English state schools in the 1960s. Students are taught Greek and Roman history, but won't learn about colonialism or the British empire in class. In Britain, where the Scots and the Irish have a strong sense of their own identity, the teaching of national history is clearly a subject that needs to be handled with the utmost care so it does not become a divisive issue.
The national story, and the values that it embodies, has to be something that the largest number of people can identify with, irrespective of their different ethnic, historical and cultural origins. For this reason, many a Briton has remarked that the Union Jack - until the recent wave of patriotism associated with the queen's diamond jubilee - has less meaning to them than the remembrance poppy.
Experience in other parts of the world also shows that citizenship is an evolving concept that shifts over time and takes on different meanings. In Canada and Australia, for example, where the citizen used to be thought of as a white person of Anglo-Saxon origin, the modern citizen is thought of much more as a globally oriented person at home in a multiracial, multicultural society. "Who am I?" is a question that every nation, every society keeps asking itself, as its ethic and cultural make-up evolves.
The recent national education debate in Hong Kong throws up the same question. Until that has been resolved, it would be hard for the authorities to implement national education in a way that enables Hong Kong people to come to terms with the nation and restore unity.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator, chair of the New People's Party and a non-official member of the Executive Council