"[National education] did not erupt out of a piece of rock all of a sudden," Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said on a radio programme last Sunday.
People may not like the way she said it, but it was true. The idea of "learning about one's national identity and making a contribution to the country" was introduced as a learning objective in a report by a government advisory body in 2001.
The next year, guidelines for the first time encouraged schools to foster recognition of national identity as one of five major values and attitudes among pupils.
But while the teaching of elements of today's moral and national education curriculum were already being encouraged in class, the turning point came on June 30, 2007, when President Hu Jintao said at a banquet organised by Hong Kong to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the handover that importance should be placed on national education in the city.
Hu said: "I have something special to say about young people in Hong Kong because they represent the future of Hong Kong, indeed, the future of China … We should foster a strong sense of national identity among the young people in Hong Kong … so that they will carry forward the Hong Kong people's great tradition of 'loving the motherland and loving Hong Kong'."
Three months later, then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen vowed in his policy address that more weight would be given to national education elements in the curriculum. He also pledged to encourage schools to stage more national-flag-raising ceremonies, and subsidise more mainland study trips.
That prompted some criticism, but Tsang courted more controversy in his 2010 policy address, announcing plans to launch "moral and national education" as a subject. Tsang, and the then secretary for education, Michael Suen Ming-yeung, reassured the public that national education classes would only be introduced after the curriculum for moral and civic education had been reviewed. Critics, including legislators, said the initiative was a "brainwashing programme".
Criticism continued for the next two years.
But two months ago, a political bomb exploded - days after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and education minister Eddie Ng Hak-kim took office - when the government confirmed that, over six years, at least HK$72 million in public funds had been granted to two companies, led by a Beijing loyalist educator, to produce biased national education material. The guides for teachers said, among other things, that "multi-party politics could 'victimise' people, while concentrated political power could create 'selfless' government that brought stability".
In late July, at least 32,000 angry Hongkongers, teachers and parents took to the streets in what became a 10-day marathon protest culminating in an "Occupy Tamar" campaign at the government headquarters in Admiralty.
Last night, Leung climbed down, saying the curriculum would not be mandatory in his current term.Topics: National Education Hu Jintao Donald Tsang Politics Hong Kong