HKDSE 2021: History exam avoids controversy after last year’s question on Sino-Japanese relations

  • Teachers and students believed there was a slim chance the topic would appear on this year’s test, which they called ‘straightforward’
  • Questions about Hong Kong politics were not asked at all

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The 2021 DSE history paper was fairly straightforward and non-controversial, following last year's question on Sino-Japanese relations. Photo: SCMP / Chan Ho-him

The history paper of the Hong Kong university entrance test held on Thursday did not touch on the contentious issue of Sino-Japanese relations after a controversial question on the topic last year ended in its withdrawal.

Students sitting this year’s Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exams said they focused their studies on other parts of the history syllabus, as they believed there would be a slim chance for the paper to have questions on the issue again.

An 18-year-old Form Six student, who gave her surname as Chan, was among the nearly 5,000 candidates who took the elective subject’s exam on Thursday morning. “I was so certain [Sino-Japanese relations] will not be tested that I did not even revise that part,” she said.

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The question that created controversy last year asked candidates whether they agreed Japan “did more good than harm to China” in the first half of the 20th century, with the Education Bureau unprecedentedly demanding the exam authority strike it out following outrage from the pro-establishment camp and Beijing’s foreign affairs arm in the city.

Critics lashed out at the question, saying it was one-sided, while the state news agency, Xinhua, said the “rage of all Chinese sons and daughters would not be settled”. The news agency also accused those involved in setting the question paper of downplaying the atrocities during Japan’s invasion and occupation of the country.

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The Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority then scrapped the question.

Some history teachers who reviewed this year’s paper said the questions were less controversial.

For the four mandatory data-based questions, topics included Hong Kong’s economy in the early 20th century, the first world war, mainland China’s modernisation and US-Soviet relations during the Cold War.

Veteran history teacher Cheung Wong, of the Professional Teachers’ Union, said he wasn't surprised that the paper avoided the topic of Sino-Japanese relations. Photo: SCMP / Chan Ho-him

History teacher Cheung Wong, of the Professional Teachers’ Union, who has been teaching the subject for about seven years, said it was not very likely Sino-Japanese relations would be covered on the test again, adding it had not been a common topic in past exams either.

But he said it was rare and “not preferable” that students were not asked about local politics at all. Only a question in the optional extended essay paper asked them about Hong Kong’s economy in the 20th century.

“Hong Kong politics is an area of focus on the syllabus,” Cheung said. “Last year’s paper had questions on the topic under the section for [data-based questions], while local economy was included as part of the [essay] questions.”

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He added that the questions on this year’s paper were generally more straightforward, which meant some top students could feel their preparation efforts had not been paid off.

History teacher Keith Chui Hiu-ki said it was “not out of his expectations” that there were no questions on Sino-Japanese relations. He added that it might not have been a deliberate choice from the exam authority, given there were other topics to choose from.

The rise of Japan’s militarism in the early 20th century, for instance, also took up a major part of the syllabus covering Asia.

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