The Education Bureau is under fire after stressing the need to "deepen understanding" of the Basic Law and "one country, two systems" in its latest curriculum guide for primary schools.
The publication of the guide on Thursday, just two days after Beijing asserted its total authority over the city in a white paper on "one country, two systems" alarmed activists, including those who fought off plans for national education in schools in 2012. The requirement is highlighted in the "recognising national identity" category of the "moral and civic education" section of the guide.
"The country has been developing continuously," it says. "Pupils need to enhance their knowledge of the country, deepen their understanding of the Basic Law and the 'one country, two systems' policy, and build up their recognition of national identity."
Tuesday's white paper has received international scrutiny for its claim that the central government has "comprehensive jurisdiction" over Hong Kong and is the source of its autonomy. The paper says some people are "confused or lopsided in their understanding" of "one country, two systems" and the Basic Law.
The paper has heightened tension, with outraged pan-democrats accusing Beijing of scrapping its promise to uphold the city's way of life and Beijing loyalists and officials arguing that it does not undermine judicial independence.
"I don't dare to speculate on the motives … but the reality is that it came out just two days after the white paper," said Cheung Yui-fai, deputy director of education research for the Professional Teachers' Union. "It's very hard for people not to feel there is political pressure."
Cheung agreed pupils needed basic knowledge of the two areas, but said teachers should have the independence to use different materials and cite a range of opinions in teaching them.
"How can you change our understanding about these two topics … just because of a white paper?" Cheung asked.
Wong Kwan-yu, chairman of the Federation of Education Workers, said the government consulted education groups on the guide a year ago. He said the white paper, as an official interpretation of the topic, would be the best teaching material.
Joshua Wong Chi-fung, convenor of student activist group Scholarism, said teaching the topics on the basis of the white paper would be "brainwashing" - the same charge activists made at national education plans.
An Education Bureau spokeswoman said the timing was "absolutely not related" to the white paper. The update began in 2012 and had originally been slated for earlier release.