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Then & now: schools of thought

After 1949, Hong Kong became a haven for those fleeing the mainland - and the leftist ideas that followed them, writes Jason Wordie

 

Communist-backed, United Front "patriotic" organisations have a long history of involvement in Hong Kong's education system. Their influence can be tracked from the early 1920s onwards and expanded greatly after the communist assumption of power on the mainland in 1949. Hong Kong's schools became an ideological battleground and - as the recent furore over national education sharply demonstrated - the struggle continues.

Whatever mainland Long March historiography tries to proclaim, by the mid-30s the Chinese Communist Party was mostly a spent force. Had it not been for the breathing space afforded by the Japanese invasion and the joint resistance against the onslaught forced by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's kidnapping in 1936, it is reasonable to assume, the communists would have been rolled up and eliminated by the end of the decade. As George Orwell rightly noted, however, those who control the present control the past, and those who control the past control the future. Education in Hong Kong, and its past and ongoing relationship to political circumstances in the mainland, bears out this grimly realistic observation.

Leftist schools expanded in refugee squatter areas from the late 40s and in resettlement estates from the 50s; some of the latter operating in temporary rooftop structures and in leftist-dominated districts such as Kennedy Town and North Point. And their teachers were often assisted by unlikely agents. One key supporter was the Anglican bishop of Hong Kong, R.O. Hall. Referred to by detractors as the "Pink Bishop", due to his proclaimed social conscience, Hall provided quiet assistance to several leftist schools. His view maintained that communism's attraction to the young was mainly created by despair. If they were at least minimally educated, and thus had better life opportunities, then the next generation would be more likely to think independently and - probably - choose a different path. But without hope for a better tomorrow, militant communism was a foregone conclusion.

Historians tend to see the world in broad political and economic terms, which often produces an attraction among their more idealistic students to Marxist ideology. Personal experience bears out this observation.

When I was a student at the University of Hong Kong - quite some time ago - our undergraduate history society had a lunchtime function and it fell to me to help MC it. Along with students and faculty members, one invitee was a representative of Xinhua - also known as the New China News Agency. This intrigued me; even by propaganda-organ standards, I thought, Xinhua must have been experiencing an extremely slow news day when a ribbon-cutting ceremony for an undergraduate student society was considered worth attending - and perhaps reporting upon.

But then - in one of life's Damascene moments - the lights came on in my mind. Try as I might, I still cannot envisage Xinhua's talent scouts bothering much with those attracted to cultural or gender studies, literary theory or other light-weight, pseudo-academic courses. But history students - and at Hong Kong's premier institution of higher learning, with its much-mythologised associations with Sun Yat-sen and other national figures - well, they were another matter altogether. And some of my classmates have enjoyed rather interesting careers since graduating.

 

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