Hong Kong textbooks rumpus to go down in history

Some descriptions about the city’s return to China in 1997 are not precise enough for a government-appointed committee, and Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has become involved

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 April, 2018, 6:29am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 April, 2018, 6:30am

Some Hong Kong teachers love to nitpick, especially when it comes to grading tests and exams. And history is one subject where the sadism of some can be given a free rein. I remember being furious once when my son came home with a failed grade in a Chinese history exam even though I thought his answers were perfectly good.

It turned out he had a lot of marks deducted because, among numerous issues, his use of some words and phrases was too ambiguous or not “precise” enough.

A textbook case of why Hong Kong’s handover is a sensitive issue

I am reminded of this episode a long time ago by the latest furore over Chinese history textbooks.

A government-appointed committee has demanded numerous changes to existing textbooks because it thought some descriptions about Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997 were not “precise enough”.

Actually, I am not sure the sentence I just wrote would meet its standards of precision; most likely not. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has come to its defence after much public criticism.

Among the problematic descriptions are: China having to “take back” Hong Kong in 1997; “Hong Kong is located south of China” and “the Chinese Communist Party’s one-party rule”.

Never mind that “take back” has been used by then vice-president Hu Jintao and Qiao Xiaoyang, the retired chairman of the National People’s Congress Basic Law committee, as well as the mainstream local media.

What does it mean to take back, restore or cede sovereignty? Such debates are precisely why people study history and find it rewarding.

Alas, it’s not usually how the subject is taught here. The 19th century Brits had a notion of sovereignty quite different from that of the Chinese. And what did “Hong Kong” mean, say, from the British takeover of Hong Kong Island after the first Opium War to its extension over Kowloon and the New Territories over the rest of the century?

In fact, some of Margaret Thatcher’s top aides at one point thought Britain had a good claim over Hong Kong – if it meant the land south of Boundary Street in Sham Shui Po – after 1997.

Or one-party rule.

Technically, China has multiple political parties, all legally registered and recognised. But it’s fair to say only the Communist Party can, practically and legitimately, rule over the country. You can be a diehard communist – especially if you are one – and acknowledge “one party rule”.