The controversy over the swearing-in of two localists to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, which culminated in Beijing stepping in to interpret Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, has sparked a wave of soul-searching and a barrage of questions. Is the anti-mainland passion of the pair representative of young Hongkongers? Nineteen years since the handover, why does a seemingly growing number of young people in Hong Kong show such disrespect, hatred even, towards China and the Chinese people?
Many, especially those from older generations, were shocked when Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching from Youngspiration, a localist group founded after the Occupy protests, pronounced China as “Chee-na” – a variation of the derogatory “Shina” used by Japanese during the second world war – during their swearing-in at Legco on October 12.
To add insult to injury, the pair pledged allegiance to the “Hong Kong nation” and displayed a banner with the words “Hong Kong is not China”. Yet, on Facebook, some young people gave them thumbs-up for daring to take on Beijing.
Since the Occupy protests, some in the pro-establishment camp have blamed an inadequate understanding of Chinese history among youngsters for their embrace of civil disobedience.
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Such claims surfaced again after the oath-taking row, with pro-establishment figures arguing that shallow understanding of Chinese history was the reason for the proliferation of separatist thoughts among the young.
Chen Zuoer, former deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said in a television interview in December 2014 he could not understand why the compulsory study of Chinese history for senior secondary students was stopped after the handover.
The flaws in the teaching of Chinese history have become a scapegoat for growing anti-mainland sentiment and the rise of separatist thoughts among youngsters in Hong Kong. On November 16, a motion requiring Chinese history be taught as an independent and compulsory subject at the junior secondary level was passed in the Legislative Council. Beijing-friendly lawmakers said the move would help address a lacking sense of belonging to the country.
But the fact is this: it is a myth that Chinese history was compulsory for secondary school students before the handover. In the colonial era, the junior secondary school curriculum did not require schools to introduce Chinese history as an independent subject, though most schools chose to teach it.
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Since the introduction of education reform in 2000, all junior secondary students have been required to study Chinese history. Currently, 89 per cent of secondary schools teach Chinese history as an independent subject for their junior secondary students, while the rest link the subject with world history or incorporate it into integrated humanities. Nowadays, junior secondary students attend two 40-minute lessons of Chinese history a week, more or less the same as the time spent on the subject by their predecessors before the handover.
It is a matter of fact the number of senior secondary students studying Chinese history has fallen. About 6,500 students sat the Chinese history test in the Diploma of Secondary Education Examination this year – just nine per cent of the total number of candidates. That compares with about 50,000 before the handover but the fall at senior secondary level has more to do with the availability of other elective subjects since the curriculum restructuring in 2009.
The growing sense of alienation among a substantial proportion of young people in Hong Kong goes deeper than the teaching of Chinese history in secondary school classrooms. Mainland officials and Beijing loyalists may not understand that, in the internet age, news and postings on social media are more influential than textbooks or the school curriculum in shaping young people’s perception of the mainland. You could not expect a Hong Kong student, overwhelmed with news reports about arrested mainland dissidents and the uncouth behaviour of some mainland tourists visiting Hong Kong, to take pride in his Chinese identity even if he were to attend six Chinese history lessons per week.
In polls by the University of Hong Kong conducted in June, just 8.5 per cent of respondents aged between 18 and 29 identified themselves as “Chinese” in a broad sense (considering themselves “Chinese” or “Chinese in Hong Kong”), compared with 35 per cent among those aged above 30. Both figures are below the 41.2 per cent of young people who identified as “Chinese” in a broad sense in a similar survey in June 2008, two months before the Beijing Olympics.
Many mainland officials are puzzled as to why many young people have a negative impression of Beijing despite the economic favours granted by the central government since the handover. The answer, I believe, lies in their discontent with Beijing’s tough stance on Hong Kong’s democratic development and its treatment of dissidents on the mainland. In recent years, the influx of mainland travellers to Hong Kong has also stirred anxiety about competition for nearly everything, from seats on MTR trains to property.
It is worth noting that a growing number of young people do not bother to apply for home-return permits. It suggests they do not see the need for any relationship with the mainland.
What is disturbing is that unlike older generations of Hongkongers, who identify with Chinese culture, a substantial number of young people in the city consider the communist regime and the Chinese people inseparable. They project their dislike of the Communist Party onto the Chinese living north of the border. It is no surprise that some young Hongkongers, particularly those familiar with the kind of derogatory phrases common to social media, do not find the two localists chanting “Chee-na” insulting to Chinese people.
The National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s interpretation of the Basic Law can easily kick independence advocates out of the legislature. And it is no tall order for the city’s education authorities to install Chinese history as a compulsory subject at junior secondary level. But it is a tougher battle for Beijing to win the hearts and minds of young people. ■
Gary Cheung is political editor at the SCMP