National education in Hong Kong

Changes to history textbooks offer lessons that must be learned

A row over a review of history textbooks led by a government-appointed panel has turned into a political controversy. The scepticism over the rationale behind the suggested changes could have been dispelled had a more transparent approach been taken by officials

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 April, 2018, 4:46am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 April, 2018, 4:46am

The choice of words for history textbooks can be a sensitive issue. When handled improperly, it can easily turn into a political controversy, as shown in the row over a review of history textbooks led by a government-appointed panel.

Although some proposed changes are not unjustified, officials have done a bad job in explaining the rationale behind them. Lessons must be learned.

That Hong Kong was returned to China by the British 20 years ago is a historical fact beyond dispute. But in a recent review of history textbooks, the panellists took issue with the words used by some publishers.

Phrases like “China taking back Hong Kong”, “China insisted on taking back Hong Kong’s sovereignty” and “the transfer of sovereignty” were deemed inappropriate.

The view was shared by Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung. He said China never recognised the treaties signed with the British, nor had it given up sovereignty over Hong Kong.

Carrie Lam defends textbooks’ take on handover

Other questionable terms include the Communist’s “one-party dictatorship” and “the city is located south of China”. The latter, according to Yeung, may be misunderstood as stating that Hong Kong is not part of China.

“To recover Hong Kong” and “to resume the exercise of sovereignty” have long been Beijing’s official wordings. But the publishers can be excused for being inaccurate, as the term “transfer of sovereignty” was commonly used by British and Hong Kong officials before and after 1997.

In fact, in a September 1997 press release, the Education Bureau also used “transfer of sovereignty” when explaining the need for textbooks to present objective and balanced viewpoints. Similarly, the term “handover of sovereignty” is still being used on the Protocol Division’s website.

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It is intriguing that the textbooks are being challenged 20 years after reunification. But the government cannot be faulted for the proposed changes.

As Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said, there was nothing wrong in making textbooks “accurate and precise”. The scepticism could have been quickly dispelled had officials explained the review in a more transparent manner.

Whatever words are used, it is important that students are given the full historical context so that they can better understand the meanings and the differences.