Explainer: Why Hong Kong’s new textbooks for secondary schools have stopped calling the city a British colony

  • Launch of several new secondary school textbooks for Hong Kong’s citizenship and social development course has sparked debate about city’s colonial past
  • New curriculum argues United Nations in 1972 voted to remove Hong Kong from past list of colonies at China’s request

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A series of recent textbooks for secondary schools has sparked a debate about Hong Kong’s colonial history. Photo: Robert Ng

New secondary school textbooks for Hong Kong’s revamped liberal studies course have become the subject of controversy after the learning materials stated the city was an occupied territory rather than a British colony.

Some residents accused the new texts of distorting the city’s history, while others defended the curriculum by citing an official United Nations document showing Hong Kong had been removed from the past list of colonies.

Here is what you need to know about the debate.

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1. When did the controversy surface? What were the arguments?

Following the city’s handover to Chinese rule in 1997, some pro-Beijing newspapers occasionally published commentaries that said Hong Kong was never a British colony, with several citing a successful vote by the UN in 1972 to strike the city from the list of colonies following a request from mainland China.

The published commentaries largely made similar points, arguing that Hong Kong was forcibly occupied by the United Kingdom and that the mainland never surrendered its sovereignty over the area.

In addition to issues about the use of the term “colony”, the Post in 2018 reported that the city’s official protocol office had erased the phrase “handover of sovereignty” from its website.

Then chief secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung had said using the word “handover” to describe the city’s return to Chinese rule in 1997 did “not accurately reflect the substance or description of this momentous historical occasion” and fell short of official terminology guidelines.

Former Chinese Premier Li Peng (left) presiding over the swearing-in of Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa at the Hong Kong Special Administrative inaugural ceremony soon after the handover. Photo: Handout

2. Why is this subject discussed in textbooks?

The new textbooks for senior secondary students were published in early June as part of the revamped liberal studies course, renamed citizenship and social development, introduced last September. The new syllabus focuses on national security, identity, patriotism and lawfulness.

The topic of Hong Kong’s past under British rule is included in a chapter discussing the “one country, two systems” governing principle, one of the core subject themes.

In comparison, teaching materials produced for the previous liberal studies course taught at secondary schools did not directly address the topic, focusing on themes such as social awareness and critical thinking skills.

However, the Education Bureau opted to overhaul the subject after politicians from the city’s pro-establishment camp had said such topics helped to radicalise youths and culminated in the social unrest in 2019.

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3. How do the new textbooks describe Hong Kong’s colonial past?

As part of the revamped syllabus, the teaching materials cited how the Chinese government had never recognised the Treaty of Nanking, an agreement signed in the aftermath of the first opium war in 1842, which forced the country’s last imperial dynasty to cede possession of Hong Kong Island to the British.

The textbooks argued against describing Hong Kong as a colony and instead said the city was under the “colonial administration of Britain”.

“Chinese governments succeeding the Qing dynasty have never recognised the unequal treaties and they have never given up sovereignty over Hong Kong. Therefore, Hong Kong is not a colony,” one book said.

One of the new textbooks released for Hong Kong’s revised liberal studies course. Photo: Handout

“In the 1960s, the United Nations established the Special Committee on Decolonization to aid colonies in gaining the right to self-determination independence. To safeguard her sovereignty over Hong Kong and Macau, China demanded the committee to remove Hong Kong and Macau from its list of colonies in 1972.”

The textbook noted the resolution was adopted by a majority vote.

Another textbook said the UN vote reflected Beijing’s stance on the subject of Hong Kong’s sovereignty, arguing that the city was in no position to declare its independence or make a case for self-determination.

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4. How was the city’s colonial past taught in the past?

Hong Kong was described in the 1990s as a British colony as part of the now-scrapped economic and public affairs course for students in Form One to Form Three.

In the first chapter of the textbook for Form One students, titled “Development of Hong Kong”, the teaching materials used the phrase “Hong Kong as a British Colony” for one of the featured topics.

Professor Paul Morris, author of a textbook on the liberal studies subject before the revamp, told the Post that Hong Kong was described as a colony from 1843 to 1997 in all the relevant textbooks at the time, including those for Economic and Public Affairs, History, Social Studies, and based on the official curricula then.

“If it has been decided that Hong Kong was not a colony, then the question is what was its system of governance in that period?” he asked.

Authorities overhauled the previous liberal studies curriculum after pro-establishment politicians accused it of helping to radicalise young residents. Photo: Sam Tsang

Morris, now a professor of comparative education at University College London, said the current version suggested the Treaty of Nanking was unequal and forced on China, and Hong Kong was therefore not a colony.

“I was not aware that historically colonies were defined as territories that were created through agreement and equal treaties. If that was the case, then all those colonies around the globe created by invasion and military force never existed,” he said.

According to two teachers familiar with the matter, the use of such phrasings started to change when the government launched the new senior secondary curriculum in 2009.

One educator, who was previously involved in vetting textbooks, said authorities had required publishers to state Hong Kong was under British rule for a period, instead of describing it as a colony.

“We have to remind publishers which suggested Hong Kong was a colony that their concept is not right,” said the teacher, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

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5. Why is the debate so important?

Last June, Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of the semi-official think tank, the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, explained the importance of not describing the city as a former British colony in an official training session for those teaching the new liberal studies course.

Lau had said calling Hong Kong a British colony would create the impression that the mainland considered the colonial administration before 1997 to be legitimate. He added that China had never recognised the unequal treaties used to take possession of the city and had only allowed Britain to rule it at that time.

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