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 can still be shelved to avoid a crisis, analysts say
As opposition mounts, lack of guidance from Beijing means government could put off launch and avoid a major political crisis, analysts say
The city has room to shelve the launch of national education in schools, since the central government has not given any instructions on how the subject should be pursued, sources told the South China Morning Post.
Analysts warned of a political crisis and said the government had missed a chance to resolve controversy over the curriculum, which critics equate with brainwashing.
The battle over the subject is spreading from primary schools to the public. At government headquarters in Admiralty, secondary school pupils have been camping since Thursday, with some older pupils on hunger strike.
The national education plan, initiated by former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen in 2010, is widely seen as a mission to serve the central government.
It became controversial when teaching materials published by a pro-Beijing education centre this year were found to be biased.
A lack of government transparency fuelled suspicions, including the granting of a contract to produce the teaching materials without a public tender. The results of a public consultation have also yet to be published.
The government is seemingly caught in a dilemma between Hongkongers and the central leadership. It has made no compromise on the format or the schedule for starting classes despite mounting opposition.
But it is understood that Beijing officials have not given any direct instructions as to how the plan should be put into practice. And a source close to Beijing said the Hong Kong government should have room to make changes that would address public concerns.
A second source, who is familiar with the former administration, said the curriculum was not based on instructions from Beijing or Tsang, but from the education and home affairs bureaus.
This source confirmed that the city's lack of "sense of belonging" to the motherland 15 years after the handover worried Beijing leaders, who hoped that through national education, Hongkongers would better understand their country and the central government.
With opposition rising, officials' delay in responding has not helped the government's cause.
Education chief Eddie Ng Hak-kim was slow to meet representatives of pupils and parents, while Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said the project had not "erupted out of a rock all of a sudden, as all school organisations have been informed".
Analysts say it would be wise for the government to shelve the plan. Political scientist Ma Ngok, of Chinese University, said the handling of the issue had given the public a bad impression.
"The only solution is to withdraw it or leave it to the schools to decide," he said. "It's difficult for a government of low credibility to gain trust, no matter how many times they have said there will be no brainwashing."
James Sung Lap-kung, of City University, said the government could have asked its advisers to look at the timetable and whether the subject should be an independent discipline. "I don't think Beijing wants to see Hong Kong in an unstable state. It won't mind doing it later," he said.
Sung said the government was constrained by the Legislative Council election this weekend, as shelving the plan before the poll would undermine pro-government candidates who had supported the subject.
He added: "Action should be taken right after the election to avoid a political crisis."