The Home Affairs Bureau has acknowledged that it sponsored a Hong Kong students' exchange tour to the mainland that was criticised by a participant as a "brainwashing" exercise.
The tour was organised by the Hong Kong-Taiwan Youth Exchange Promotion United Association, which applied for a government sponsorship of HK$600,000 for a six-day trip to Shanxi province held earlier this month.
About 300 students, mainly from secondary schools in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Guangdong, participated.
The organisers said on their website that the trip was aimed at promoting friendships among young people from Hong Kong and the mainland, as well as understanding modern China's economic development from the energy and coal industry of Shanxi.
But a newspaper yesterday published an excerpt from the diary of one of the students who said the trip was for "brainwashing" and presented a biased view of places and historical events.
The trip website said the cost for each participant was HK$5,500, but including government and other sponsorship, participants had to only pay HK$2,600 each. An additional discount of up to HK$1,300 was given to students recommended by schools.
The unidentified student, commissioned by the Apple Daily to join the tour, said in the diary excerpt that participants were forced to shout the name of the tour, Love My China, as a slogan.
During a visit to the Taiyuan Iron & Steel Co, a guide told them Taiyuan was the birthplace of Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s. But they were not told that the nationwide effort to produce steel ended in catastrophe.
The student also questioned a guide's remarks at a coal museum that China's notoriously dangerous mines were safe because they were equipped with emergency telephones.
A spokeswoman for the Home Affairs Bureau confirmed that the trip was sponsored by the government's Commission on Youth, under the Community Participation Scheme for Organising Study Tours to the Mainland.
The spokeswoman also said the scheme's activities had to meet criteria such as enhancing youth awareness and understanding of the mainland's history and politics.
Activities included pre-tour briefings and post-tour information sharing sessions.
The spokeswoman did not comment on whether the Love My China trip was for brainwashing purposes.
Eva Chan Sik-chee, co-founder of the Parents Concern Group on National Education, said it should have been made clear in advance whether the trip would offer a biased view.
"If the tour was not meant for students to learn history, but for promoting the [ideology of the] central government, the organiser should have made that clear in the first place," she said.
She also questioned whether the government was using public money wisely by sponsoring such trips.
A spokesman for the exchange association, William Chan Chun-ho, denied that the trip would facilitate "brainwashing".
He said 23 students from the organising committee joined the tour to debrief and encourage discussion among participants after each place they had visited.