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.
Thousands rally against national education lessons
With the subject set to start in primary schools, thousands protest at government headquarters
Tens of thousands of people opposed to national education lessons, due to begin tomorrow in primary schools, rallied last night outside government headquarters in Admiralty.
Among them, three teenagers were forced to bring their hunger strike to an early end on health grounds. But 10 others - university students, a parent, teachers and a professor - began a hunger strike due to last until tomorrow.
Organisers, who put the number of protesters last night at 40,000, called for another protest tomorrow at the same spot. Earlier, police put the crowd at more than 8,100.
(Real voices: the September 1 carnival and demonstration against national education. Video by Helene Franchineau)
Many parents, with children in tow, gathered outside the headquarters to make their feelings known on national education - a subject the government says will instil national pride but which protesters dismiss as a brainwashing tool.
Three members of protest group Scholarism were forced to bring a planned 72-hour hunger strike to an end 16 hours early, at midnight. The three, Lily Wong Lee-lee, Ivan Lam Long-yin and another student calling himself Kaiser, defied a request by Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to start eating again yesterday morning.
She told them they had made their point, and that the government was offering schools enough flexibility in teaching national education.
Campaigners used colourful games to argue against the national education programme, which will be compulsory at primary level from 2015 and in secondary classrooms from 2016.
Social worker Kung Si-man twisted balloons to resemble an assortment of animals. "We want children to know they have the freedom to choose what they like, and they don't have to accept everything that is forced on them," she said.
Volunteer Jenny Luk Mei-wai ran a booth that hung up questions on Chinese geography gleaned from the existing secondary school textbooks. One intermediate-level question was: what is the largest Chinese province that also shares a border with the most countries? Answer: Xinjiang . "We want to show that our current school curriculum already offers a lot of the topics that they say national education will teach," she said.
Hazel Pang Tsz-tsun, 10, explored a village made of cardboard that was intended to remind visitors of a dark period in China's recent past. She was invited to shake one of the houses while her younger brother was inside, as an example of "tofu" buildings that collapsed, due to shoddy construction, in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
"Because there is brainwashing in China, when the earthquake struck people didn't realise that many deaths actually occurred because the government did not build the houses properly," she said.
Other messages of protest were written on eggshells. "The children are like eggs, they are young and have fragile shells," said Ivy Ip Wai-min, a 28-year-old architect, who was visiting the gathering with her boyfriend.
(Video: "HK's ethnic minority students and national education" by Helene Franchineau)