by Paul Temple
If you sometimes get the sense that your teaching isn’t having much effect on the students in front of you, then perhaps you need a bit of advice from colleagues at Hong Kong’s schools and universities. There – at least, according to China Daily, Beijing’s Pravda equivalent (2 September) – the “root cause of young people’s participation in the Hong Kong protests” is to be found in the teaching taking place in high schools and universities. As a result, “rioting protestors are…ordinary young men and women, including many university students who have…lost their moral bearing”. What is this incendiary teaching about, capable of turning normally well-behaved young Hong Kongers into raging mobs? Liberal studies in high schools, covering topics such as “Hong Kong today”, “globalisation”, “energy technology”, and “public health”, are apparently behind a lot of the trouble. Well, the very titles fairly set your pulse racing, don’t they? I’m planning to get one of these Hong Kong teachers, who can apparently turn a class on public health into an incitement to confront the riot police, to share some tips on stopping a class drifting off when one of my own presentations somehow fails to energise them.
But perhaps the real villain of the piece is the teaching of what is described as critical thinking where, to China Daily’s obvious bafflement, “different [textbook] publishers have different political views”. What’s needed, clearly, is for “The government [to] either directly provide contents for the publishers, or establish an official scrutiny mechanism”. I may have missed some nuances in the various posters I saw plastered around Hong Kong during a visit in early September, but I’m pretty sure that “More intervention by Beijing in textbook publishing” wasn’t a key demand of students who have regularly formed peaceful, dignified human chains encircling their university or high school campuses as a gesture of support for democratic values.
This detail perhaps helps illuminate the widening gulf between the Party bureaucrats in Beijing and their local enforcers in the shape of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, and the pro-democracy activists, with the Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, routinely described in the local press as “embattled”, caught in the crossfire. Local opinion varies on whether she defied Beijing in withdrawing the extradition bill at the centre of the storm, or whether Beijing decided on a tactical retreat which she executed. Both explanations may be partly true.
Either way, “too little, too late” seems to sum up the situation: withdrawal of the extradition bill has done nothing to prevent the protests, which seem to have developed a momentum of their own. Investigations into allegations of police brutality at earlier demonstrations are now a demand, with placards simply saying “831” (a reference to injuries sustained by protestors at an event on 31 August) being displayed at later protests – and so on, and on. Both sides are digging in. Beijing is said to be determined to stop Hong Kong sliding into what is called a “colour” revolution (Georgia and Ukraine being examples, involving massive largely non-violent street demonstrations), but there are also parallels with the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe. There, concessions made by the communist regimes that would, only months before, have been regarded as major achievements by reformers were, by the time they were made, dismissed as mere stages on the way to wider change. In Eastern Europe, the demand was to return to pre-1945 national democratic (more or less) structures that hardly anyone could remember. The Hong Kong equivalent is to look back fondly on colonial structures and processes. It is a strange feeling for a visiting Brit to see young people, born after British rule had ended in 1997, waving the colonial-era Hong Kong blue ensign as a gesture of defiance. Nothing could be more calculated to enrage Beijing apparatchiks. It is difficult, at the moment, to see this ending well.
SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London.