Patriotic Education in Hong Kong Won’t Make the Grade

Some words, to misquote Humpty Dumpty, mean whatever you choose. So it is with patriotic education. For U.S. President Donald Trump, it was an excuse to denigrate teachers, often left-leaning, and to appeal to his base with a whitewashed narrative of American history. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, it’s an ongoing campaign that uses nationalist sentiment to help shore up his rule. In Hong Kong, it has come to include any means of encouraging uncooperative youth to become loyal to Beijing.

As of last week, that includes official guidelines for teaching even the youngest primary students about a national security law introduced last year and name major offenses —  subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign countries. Revamping the education system began even before Britain’s handover in 1997, but efforts to promote nation-building through the classroom initially proceeded with caution. In 2012, the Hong Kong government withdrew plans to introduce compulsory Chinese national education after thousands of citizens protested. That forbearance has disappeared since the protests of 2014 and then 2019. Last year, the government said liberal studies, a core subject for secondary students that it has long blamed for fueling unrest, would be reformed, reduced in scale, renamed —  and refocused on mainland China.

Patriotic education will, like Saturn, eat its children. Not because there’s anything wrong with teaching responsible citizenship, history or pride in one’s nation. All are laudable, indeed vital. One study in 2016 found that only a quarter of Americans could name all three branches of government, down from 2011, while nearly a third could name none. There’s room for improvement.

The trouble is that in Hong Kong — and almost everywhere, as these words pop up more frequently — patriotic education implies putting today’s political imperative ahead of everything else. It conflates country, culture and party. It promotes a single acceptable narrative and avoids considering either multiple perspectives or difficult questions, almost the exact opposite of what a future, innovation-driven economy will require of today’s children. Hong Kong officials should know better than most. They made liberal studies compulsory in 2009 in part to meet future challenges by helping students think independently.

It’s true that a tightly controlled system didn’t hamper the early success of South Korea and other tiger economies. China is still outpacing much of the rest of the world. Unfortunately, the ingredients required to move up the value chain several decades ago are very different from what’s required to keep growth going today. Thailand, for one, is stalling after decades of prizing conformity and compliance over actual learning. The kingdom will likely grow old before it grows rich.

Singapore, an ideal for Chinese officials since Deng Xiaoping made his official visit in 1978, is often used as proof that tight controls can co-exist with a developed economy. Yet as with the British Conservative politicians who glorify the Lion City as a model, officials in Beijing and Hong Kong see what they want to see. They fail to perceive an island nation that, for all its faults, holds elections, responds to its citizens — and is battling with the reality that rigid education doesn’t produce new ideas.

There’s a clear political reason for efforts to limit debate in Hong Kong. As one approving commentator put it in the South China Morning Post last year after the national security law was passed, freedom of expression will be allowed “within reasonable boundaries and with a proper understanding of China.” Guidelines to bring schools into line now expect national security education to be folded into subjects from biology to music. It’s a terrible long-term policy.

First, the economic cost. Indoctrination produces loyal servants, but not the workers of the future. Edward Vickers, a professor of comparative education at Kyushu University in Japan, explains that Beijing does see critical thinking as useful, but only within strict parameters and reserved for the few. Excluding Hong Kong comes at a cost, given the mainland still needs it as a global financial center. That requires nurturing, attracting and retaining homegrown talent, too.

Rather than addressing the failings of the school system — which already entrenches inequality and does nowhere near enough to create an inclusive, multicultural community — Beijing has simply built on the colonial base. As Vickers points out, pro-Beijing leaders capitalized on the previous administration’s centralized control of education, and on moves to depoliticize the teaching of Chinese subjects like literature by infusing them with a broad cultural chauvinism. Intended as a bulwark against communism, it now flips easily into the Party’s portrayal of itself as a protector of traditional culture. Basic shortcomings like teaching to the test, the over-use of tutoring and a damaging failure to read for leisure remain untouched.

It’s a staggering wasted opportunity. Education is one area that, once tampered with, could push many of Hong Kong’s middle-class parents to take up Britain’s offer of sanctuary for more than 5 million residents — over 70% of the population — even if few were frontline protesters. They want their children to be able to compete and succeed. Beijing is also squandering a soft power opportunity, says historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom of the University of California, Irvine. Hong Kong’s film and arts scene, which has produced gems and Hollywood remakes, is unlikely to emulate South Korea’s current success under such restrictions, plus a leadership that prizes a monolingual, monocultural China.

At the most basic level, teaching children and teachers not to disagree with the official line is the sure path to self-censorship and silence. That may well be the aim. Yet while Beijing is alert to Singapore’s model, it’s no less aware of the causes of the Soviet Union’s collapse, including the leadership’s blindness to its own fatal flaws. Why recreate that here?

Sometimes patriotism requires allowing questions, not mandating answers.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

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