Why do Chinese history lessons get a bad reputation in Hong Kong?

While Beijing blames youth separatist ideas on a shoddy understanding of Chinese history, parents and teachers fear ‘brainwashing’ and an allusion to the city’s past being less important than China’s

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 November, 2017, 12:19pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 November, 2017, 7:30pm

Call it a hot potato of a subject, for anyone who touches it risks being accused of being either a revisionist or overly conservative.

On Monday, Hong Kong’s Education Bureau launched the second round of consultation on a revised Chinese history curriculum for junior secondary school students.

The subject has always been controversial because of simmering anti-mainland sentiment, with some Beijing officials believing a poor understanding of Chinese history the reason for the spread of separatist sentiments among the city’s youth.

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As part of the revised curriculum, students will spend more time learning about China’s contemporary history and Hong Kong’s development over the years.

Lawmakers and government officials have crossed swords on the necessity of including some events in modern history, such as Hong Kong’s 1967 riots and the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989, in the curriculum. Those subjects are currently off the curriculum.

1. What is Chinese history curriculum reform all about?

In December 2013, the government formed a committee to review the Chinese history curriculum for junior secondary school pupils. The current curriculum has been used for two decades.

The review was aimed at enhancing pupils’ understanding of China’s history and development, strengthening their sense of belonging to the country.

The first revision was announced in September last year with a one-month public consultation, and for the first time, it included Hong Kong’s history.

With the reform, Form One to Form Three pupils would spend less time on ancient Chinese history and more on political, economic and social developments related to modern China and the city.

They would have to complete within two years the syllabus on ancient history and the different dynasties that ruled ancient China, before spending a full year on contemporary history, studying events ranging from China’s 1911 revolution to the establishment of Hong Kong as a special administrative region in 1997.

Currently, nearly half of secondary school students do not study events after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 because of insufficient teaching time.

2. How will pupils study Chinese history differently with the latest revised curriculum?

The second draft of the revised syllabus says junior secondary school pupils will spend 76 per cent of total class time on political history, up from the 65 per cent suggested earlier.

The change is an attempt to address educators’ concerns over the first draft, which they said put too much emphasis on positive aspects such as unification and prosperity, and too little on negative aspects like the disorder and the decline of different dynasties.

The coverage of cultural history would shrink from 25 per cent to 14 per cent, while another 10 per cent would be taken up by Hong Kong’s role and development at different times in history.

The government also offered a clearer picture on what should be taught regarding the city’s development after the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949.

This portion would include relations between Hong Kong and mainland China since 1949, Sino-British negotiations on the handover of Hong Kong to China, and the establishment of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.

Teaching controversial parts of Chinese history ‘up to textbook publishers and teachers’ in Hong Kong

3. Why is Chinese history – unlike other subjects – a politically sensitive topic in Hong Kong?

Beijing officials and pro-establishment politicians have attributed the rise of anti-China or even separatist sentiments among Hong Kong’s youth to their lack of understanding – and therefore appreciation – of Chinese history.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor earlier announced that all Hong Kong secondary schools would teach Chinese history as an independent compulsory subject at the junior levels from next year in a bid to equip pupils with a sense of national identity.

That came months after a motion was passed in the Legislative Council on the topic, with strong backing from the pro-establishment camp.

Some pan-democrats however feared the subject was “new national education” in another guise.

Motion on teaching of Chinese history at junior secondary level passed in Hong Kong’s Legco

4. Why is there suspicion towards national education?

His fans would sum it up in two words: Joshua Wong.

But the truth is that suspicion is more deep-seated than was expressed when the pro-democracy student leader led protests for 10 days against the government’s plan for “national education courses” in the school curriculum.

The government introduced this idea in 2012 in a bid to nurture patriotism for China. Parents and students were upset, seeing it as a plot to brainwash young people into believing just one version of events surrounding China’s development.

Others were also concerned that contemporary history in the revised syllabus would emphasise the rise of China without mentioning its dark side.

Wong’s actions resulted in the government backing down and withdrawing its plan.

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5. What are the concerns of educators and lawmakers?

Some teachers are worried that with fewer than two classes each week, there is not enough time to finish the curriculum, not to mention discussing specific events and other related topics.

They are also troubled that Hong Kong’s history would be seen as being driven by, and secondary to, China’s history, all in a bid to increase pupils’ sense of belonging to China.

Some schools are currently teaching Chinese history and Western history together to form a holistic view of how the histories and cultures of different countries influence one another.

These schools believe their approach has been effective and they have reservations about teaching Chinese history on its own.

Teachers also complained that the consultation forms were only distributed to principals and subject officers, and frontline history teachers had no opportunity to give their views.

With the latest revision to the Chinese history curriculum, government officials were grilled after it emerged that several controversial chapters of Chinese history, such as the Tiananmen Square crackdown and the 1967 riots, were absent.

Their explanation was that the new curriculum was only a framework with key points and that teachers and textbook publishers would be given the freedom to decide how to broach controversial events and topics.

Deputy Secretary for Education Hong Chan Tsui-wah on Tuesday admitted it was inappropriate for her to describe the 1967 riots and the Tiananmen Square crackdown as “trivial” in the press conference the day before.

Democratic Party lawmaker Ted Hui Chi-fung said he feared some schools might self-censor and not teach contentious topics absent from the curriculum.

6. When will the new curriculum take effect?

The second stage of consultation for the revised curriculum was launched on Monday and will run until the end of this month for schools and teachers to give feedback.

The new curriculum is expected to be used in the 2020 school year – which means the current syllabus will still be taught when the subject becomes compulsory next year.