Protest against national education to end after government climbdown
10-day siege of government headquarters called off after chief executive, on eve of Legco poll, says curriculum no longer mandatory
Stuart Lau, Amy Nip and Adrian Wan
Protesters who have besieged government headquarters for 10 days in opposition to the teaching of national education in Hong Kong schools called off their action early today – hours after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced, on election eve, that schools would no longer be required to teach the subject.
Leung said the government had scrapped its three-year deadline for schools to begin teaching national education, and said schools would be free to choose independently whether to teach the subject. He pledged not to push for compulsory lessons during his five years in office.
Government officials and critics alike agreed Leung had conceded defeat. However, the activists said they would continue their opposition to national education until the government scraps the curriculum, which they consider an exercise in brainwashing students. They say that while the lessons remain an option, pressure will linger for schools to teach the subject in future.
Joshua Wong Chi-fung, the 15-year-old convenor of student-activist group Scholarism, which has spearheaded protests against the curriculum, said: "Our occupation of the government headquarters ends now, but our fight against it will go on and on ... When that is achieved, we will come back and celebrate here.”
Eva Chan Sik-chee, of the Parents Concern Group, said protesters on a hunger strike would end their fast – among them Professional Teachers' Union deputy director James Hon Lin-shan, 63, who had not eaten for 170 hours, the longest of all.
Wong hailed the movement as “a historic miracle”.
“All pupils, parents, and the public took part in it voluntarily and so orderly. It was civic quality on display, and that’s the best civic education we need,” he said to an emotional crowd at 1.30am. Organisers said 100,000 protesters were there at 9.30pm; police put the crowd at 27,000. An even bigger crowd had massed there on Friday night, following eight days of smaller protests.
The chief executive denied the announcement had been timed to swing today’s Legislative Council election, and refuted suggestions he had consulted Beijing before making the announcement. At an editors’ briefing, he blamed the previous administration for the crisis.
“I won’t push for compulsory national education in my five-year term. If it hadn’t been for the decision of the last administration, national education would not have been on the agenda of this government. I would rather concentrate on housing, poverty and other livelihood issues. I’ve held numerous talks with the chief secretary on major policymaking, [and] none of our conversations ever touched on national education,” Leung said.
Protest organisers’ estimates put the turnout at about 100,000.
Bobo Yip Po-lam, a spokeswoman for an alliance of concern groups, including Scholarism, the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union and Parents’ Concern Group, expressed fear members of school sponsoring bodies would still be under pressure to push the subject.
A government source said Leung was now considering when to meet protesters’ representatives.
Leung was said to have admitted the government had botched its public relations in recent weeks.
Asked at the press conference why the government did not simply abolish national education, Leung said it would mean banning schools that rolled out the subject from doing so.
He urged protesters to stop their hunger strike, and told students to return to school.
But protesters’ initial reaction was one of defiance.
“This is a trivial amendment and in no way reflects the demands of the 120,000 protesters [on Friday],” said Kenty Chan, 50.
Some pan-democrats said Leung’s announcement came colose to meeting their demands. Others said the chief executive had passed the buck to schools.
Beijing loyalists saw it as a compromise, responding to people’s concerns.
Additional reporting by Jennifer Ngo