Are Beijing loyalists really ready for modern Chinese history to be taught to all Hong Kong students?

Gary Cheung says a new curriculum will give local secondary pupils the chance to study a number of ‘inconvenient truths’ about the nation’s post-1949 history

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 November, 2016, 2:20pm
UPDATED : Monday, 28 November, 2016, 8:36pm

Two weeks ago, a motion requiring Chinese history be taught as an independent and compulsory subject at junior secondary level was passed in the Legislative Council with strong backing from the pro-establishment camp.

The lawmakers believe that the rise of separatist thought among young people in Hong Kong has to do with their shallow understanding of Chinese history. Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, for one, attributed the behaviour of two localists at the centre of the Legco oath fracas to the rise of a “rootless” generation – all because Chinese history was not properly taught.

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Just a week earlier, at a press conference held to announce Beijing’s latest interpretation, Basic Law Committee chairman Li Fei spent seven minutes explaining why he found the conduct of Youngspiration’s Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching deplorable. Brandishing a copy of the Chinese edition of A History of Hong Kong, written by historian Frank Welsh, Li quoted parts in the book detailing the atrocities the Japanese army perpetrated during its occupation of Hong Kong from 1941 to 1945.

Revised history curriculum focuses more on Hong Kong but omits important elements of the past

I don’t doubt that the two disqualified lawmakers are quite ignorant about Chinese history. A letter that Yau drafted but never sent, calling for Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to express concern over the sovereignty of the New Territories, is further proof of their appalling ignorance of Chinese history. In the leaked letter, she argued, incredibly, that the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration should have dealt only with the sovereignty of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.

Even so, Beijing-friendly politicians and mainland officials who spare no effort in pushing young people to learn more about Chinese history should be careful what they wish for.

All junior secondary students are in fact required to study Chinese history, with 89 per cent of secondary schools already teaching it as an independent subject for their junior secondary pupils. However, ancient history accounts for more than 70 per cent of the current syllabus of Chinese history at junior secondary level.

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If Beijing loyalists want Hong Kong youth to better understand the Chinese people’s humiliation by foreign powers and appreciate the rise of the country’s international status in the second half of the last century, students will need to learn more about modern Chinese history. Currently, more than 40 per cent of secondary schools do not study events after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 because of insufficient teaching time.

Under the revised curriculum, which can be implemented as early as 2019, contemporary history would account for half of the curriculum. This will surely give students more time to learn about the “inconvenient truths” of China’s post-1949 history.

For starters, students will learn about how, in 1957, Mao Zedong (毛澤東) launched the anti-rightist campaign to “rectify the party”. Mao called his tactics “an overt conspiracy” to lure “the snakes out of their holes”. Hundreds of thousands of intellectuals who were accused of “launching a ferocious offensive” on the Communist Party were subsequently sent to labour camps to be re-educated. Following that, the 10-year Cultural Revolution, which started in 1966, saw countless politicians and intellectuals driven to their deaths, civilians killed in armed conflicts, and cultural relics destroyed.

I wonder if Beijing loyalists will kick themselves a few years down the road, when students are really learning more about what happened in China after 1949.

Gary Cheung is the Post’s political editor