One photograph from a recent protest against national education in Hong Kong shows a young boy sporting a red sticker that reads: "No brainwashing". The message is clear: Hongkongers fear that the classes, designed to teach students to appreciate the motherland, are merely an excuse to indoctrinate children.

Commentators have reacted with bemusement on the mainland. This summer marked the 15th anniversary of the handover, but last year a poll found the number of Hongkongers who identified as Chinese had hit a 12-year-low. This disconnect from the mainland has been demonstrated again and again in protests, some worthy (the national education hunger strikes), some loathsome (the "locust" advert).

Against this backdrop, the education campaign's objective "to enhance students' moral character and national identity should not come as a surprise to anyone", wrote a current affairs commentator in the state-run China Daily. (The article appeared in the Hong Kong edition of the newspaper; on the mainland, the protests have, for the most part, not been covered in the mainstream media).

The Global Times argued the classes were actually saving Hongkongers from been indoctrinated by the remnants of colonialism. "Those who oppose [national education] are likely to be more 'brainwashed' by Western ideology," said an opinion piece in the newspaper.

The central government thinks it is natural - or necessary, even - that students are taught to foster identity and cohesiveness. The China Daily article spells this out. Without knowledge of China, including its geography, culture, size and the concept of "one country, two systems", "our future generation may risk being manipulated as clones, or even lackeys by the opposition against our own country".

But many people on the mainland don't agree.

Patriotic education is compulsory in mainland schools and universities. Lin Tao, a 27-year-old biologist who expresses sympathy with the Hong Kong protesters, says most of what he was taught at school was "nonsense".

Cui Yongyuan, a CCTV news anchor, asked "what is patriotic?" during a speech at East China Normal University. He concluded that while the Chinese had long been taught that "domestic shame should not be made public", the only way to show true love for your country was by pointing out the gov-ernment's shortcomings.

Sympathy for the protesters is perhaps best summed up by a Weibo user named UncleWinky, who wrote: "In a country reluctant to admit its mistakes, where political pressure has left the people frustrated, where money and power are considered more important than the truth, no form of patriotic education will work."

Wise words that the central government should keep in mind.