Education row escalates ahead of polls
Students on Saturday demanded the government scrap a plan to introduce mandatory Chinese patriotism lessons after a rally drew tens of thousands of people ahead of legislative elections.
Organisers said 120,000 protesters rallied outside the government headquarters late on Friday but police put the number at 36,000, a marked escalation in demonstrations which have waxed and waned for 10 straight days.
“This is unprecedented, 120,000 people rallied outside the government headquarters,” student activists group Scholarism leader Joshua Wong told protesters who continued to camp outside the offices on Saturday.
“I was surprised by the mass turnout and if the government doesn’t withdraw the subject, it’s not listening to the people’s will,” said the 15-year-old protest leader.
The protests began in July when tens of thousands rallied against what they say is a Bejing-imposed policy to brainwash children with Communist Party propaganda.
They have continued daily for almost two weeks in what has became a major headache for the Beijing-backed government ahead of elections on Sunday for the Legislative Assembly.
Fourteen people are on hunger strike outside the government’s harbourside headquarters, and the students have erected a replica of the democracy statue that symbolised the student-led 1989 Tiananmen protests in the mainland.
The government says the “national education” subject is important to foster a sense of national belonging and identity, amid rising anti-Beijing sentiment in the semi-autonomous southern city of seven million people.
Schools are meant to adopt the subject voluntarily this year but it will be mandatory in all primary and secondary schools by 2016.
A survey released last week showed 69 per cent of students opposed the classes, and many schools have said they will not introduce it until the government clarifies the curriculum.
Critics say the lessons extol the benefits of one-party rule, equate multi-party democracy to chaos, and gloss over events like the bloody Tiananmen crackdown and the mass starvation of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has vowed to push ahead with the plan despite the daily protests, but in a sign of the mounting pressure the government is under he said on Friday he was prepared to talk to the students.
“We have made all channels open, and I’m prepared to talk,” he said, adding however that he would not discuss withdrawing the classes altogether.
“If the result of the talk is predetermined to the extent of having to withdraw the subject, then it isn’t really a dialogue,” he said.
The territory goes to the polls on Sunday to elect a new 70-seat legislature, which will play a crucial role on the city’s path to direct elections for its leader in 2017 and the legislature by 2020.