Hong Kong’s pro-China chief executive Leung Chun-ying has faced the first significant threat to his mandate this month, having been forced to back down over controversial education reforms.
In the past fifteen years of independence from British rule, the people of Hong Kong have maintained a significant and valued separation from their neighbours on the Chinese mainland. Although legally returned to Chinese rule in 1997, the “Special Administrative Region” enjoys a constitutionally guaranteed “high degree of autonomy” from the Beijing authorities in all aspects of its internal affairs.
Now, however, in the face of recently appointed leader Leung Chun-ying’s unabashedly pro-Chinese posturing, combined with growing uncertainty over the future roll of the financial hub in the face of their neighbours ever growing economic clout, polls suggest that public perception of Beijing has hit an all-time low, with many residents fearing that increasing economic and social interdependence belie a desire on the part of the mainland government to tighten their grip on the island’s much cherished liberties.
This atmosphere exploded into protest this month, with crowds of demonstrators taking to the streets surrounding government headquarters to express discontent at proposed educational reforms. The move in question involved the introduction of a new curriculum, aimed, according to detractors, at brainwashing young minds into unquestioning acceptance of China’s governing Communist Party.
The crowd, which included a significant number of education professionals and school students, focussed their anger on a government sponsored booklet entitles “The China Model”. The text omits a number of the more brutal episodes in resent Chinese political history including the suppression of student demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and emphasises the order and stability one party rule has brought to China, while criticising democratic regimes as promoting chaos while offering little in the way of benefit to the people. The new scheme was to remain voluntary for the next three years, with the intention that as of 2015 all schools would be obliged to deliver the curriculum.
While official statements sought to downplay fears of brainwashing, claiming that the new lesson content is intended only to promote a greater sense of pride and belonging toward China, public anger remained consistent since the proposal was revealed in summer and culminated with these protests, coinciding with the first week of Hong Kong’s academic year.
With crowds ultimately swelling to comprise over 100,000 demonstrators, Hong Kong’s leaders have been forced to scrap plans to make the curriculum mandatory, and have announced that schools will maintain the right to opt-in or out at their own discretion. The U-turn raises questions over Leung’s ability to pursue his intended policy direction, as well as the future relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing.