More than 1,000 Hong Kong University students dressed in black boycotted class Tuesday to protest the new Communist Party-backed curriculum that will be taught in some of Hong Kong's public schools starting this month.
China announced in July a plan to gradually implement in the Hong Kong school system the "Moral and National Education" program, which teaches a one-sided version of contemporary Chinese history and the political doctrines of the Communist Party. Thousands of infuriated Hong Kong citizens marched through the streets of Asia's financial center in protest of the decision.
While Beijing-backed Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying had originally given a 2015 deadline to make the curriculum mandatory in all schools, continued demonstrations have caused him to compromise: For now teachers have the flexibility to decide how and if they want to teach the new curriculum.
Still, students are upset. Winky Wong, a student at City University of Hong Kong, told Reuters that the compromise isn't enough: "Some schools depend on government support so they may feel pressure if they don't impose national education."
Stanley Rosen, a specialist on Chinese politics and a political science professor at the University of Southern California, said that while the curriculum may not seem too threatening at first, "If you look at selective parts of [the teachings], you start to see red herrings, like praise for the communists and criticism of democracy."
And this brings fear to Hong Kong citizens who have had relative independence from Beijing since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997. Under the "One country, Two system" philosophy, Hong Kong has ruled with independent political and educational systems.
"The fear is that the national education system will breed a new generation of brainwashed children who accept what is taught to them without critical thinking," said Jonathan Li, who was born and raised in Hong Kong.
Netizens on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, clashed over the matter in heated online debates. One user wrote: "The Party, politics, and nation have always been different categories, the Chinese government deliberately conflates them together," while another said, "Hong Kong you must persevere! Don't be assimilated!"
In recent years Hong Kong-Beijing relations have soured because of the government's attempts to tighten its grasp on the city and the influx of mainlanders, who are blamed for causing price spikes by buying up real estate. Another complaint is directed toward "birth tourists," expectant mainland mothers who come to Hong Kong to deliver their babies in order to bypass China's one-child policy, and subsequently fill up the best hospital wards.
Some in Hong Kong believe the best way to improve relations is to teach balanced classes. "If you want to teach students how to love their country, a sensible education system would teach history and civics," said Marcus Mo, a Hong Kong native, who pointed out that Chinese history is not mandatory in Hong Kong schools. "Let students study both the good and the bad, so that they can make up their own minds."
Li agrees that the Beijing-backed curriculum is not the solution. "Most Hong Kong people are truly proud of being Chinese, but we just don't agree with the ideologies that come from Beijing," said Li.