After less than 100 days in office, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英) is already in political intensive care. In record time, he has managed to lose his veneer of competence, credibility and steely leadership.
One of his Cabinet appointees was arrested for corruption within two weeks of Leung’s assumption of office. Another was found to have been a slumlord who owned illegal cage-like apartments that he blamed entirely on his wife. Leung himself was caught with several illegal structures in his house, a violation that he exploited successfully against his rival, Henry Tang (唐英年), in the election campaign.
Leung has also distinguished himself by inciting a large swathe of teachers and students to stage massive street protests against his effort to insert a “national education” program into the school curriculum in order to “reconnect” Hong Kong’s young people with the motherland. For tens of thousands of student protesters, many with their parents in tow, the potential death of an honest education was too much to bear.
The goal of the program, inherited from the previous administration, is a good one: expand knowledge among the young about modern China. However, as Tang correctly pointed out in response to a question about the protests, the “devil is in the details.”
What triggered the uproar was the appearance of a “model” textbook, financed by the government and published by a pro-China think tank. The textbook contains mostly propaganda, including assertions that China’s one-party system is wonderful, whereas multiparty democracy as practiced in the US has created harmful social turbulence. It offers no discussion of the lethal policies since 1949 that led to the persecution and starvation of tens of millions of Chinese. Nor does it mention the fratricidal political movements from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution. The program was clearly meant to indoctrinate, not educate.
Massive protests forced Leung to withdraw a deadline to implement the new curriculum. He has also given the schools flexibility concerning when and perhaps how to introduce it. Since nearly all schools are dependent on government subsidies, the grant of flexibility is widely perceived to be a tactical delay. With the job security of schoolmasters at risk, most are sure to implement the program.
The protesters, led by a 15-year-old student, now a folk hero, have retreated, but that, too, is a tactical decision. The students have promised to continue to fight the program until it is scrapped.
Why does China’s government seek to impose the curriculum in the first place? After all, Hong Kong has one of the world’s most educated populations: the city has, in per capita terms, perhaps more graduates of the world’s top 20 universities than anywhere outside of Manhattan.
Nevertheless, after more than 60 years in power, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to retain a deep sense of insecurity. The Internet may be ubiquitous in modern China, but YouTube and Facebook, so much an accepted part of normal life around the world, are still banned, and the Public Security Bureau has built a vast Internet monitoring system to filter and censor whatever China’s leaders believe they must fear.
While dissent is the lifeblood of any open society, for China it is a dangerous poison. Moreover, China fears that Hong Kong, with a population of less than 8 million, might present a systemic problem as an alternative form of government, even though many communists and their allies hold key positions in Hong Kong’s private and public sectors.