Against national education – reflections on the Hong Kong hunger strike

no brainwash web

This is the Thinking China Digest, a weekly roundup of recent essays and articles published on the Chinese web, with links to translations on the Marco Polo Project.

In the first week of September 2012, a group of high schools students from Hong Kong organised a public hunger strike to oppose new ‘national and moral education’ classes – dismissing them as a form of brainwash. More protesters joined them, including a 63 year old teacher, attracting considerable attention from Hong Kong citizens and the media. After ten days of protest, and hundreds of thousands of supporters attending a wide range of events, the government finally made concessions, proposing to no longer make these classes compulsory, but leaving schools to decide whether they should be implemented.

1510, in collaboration with the news website CoChina, published a special magazine issue on this event. This week’s post proposes to follow the course of events presented in that issue, and a text engaging the questions raised by mainland Chinese internet users regarding the events.

Protesting national education
By CoChina, 30 August-09 September 2012
From 30 August to 8 September 2012, Hong Kong saw ten days of protests against new ‘moral and national education’ classes. The movement started with three high school students’ decision to stage a hunger strike opposite the government headquarters. Many people described the movement as a miracle, not only because it was orchestrated by students, but also because of the level of support it attracted. CoChina proposed a short summary of events for each day of the protest, and a one-word label for each. This is how the protests unfolded:

  • Day 1: Hunger strike. Three high school students from the group ‘Scholarism’ (学民思潮) staged a hunger strike on the square opposite the Hong Kong SAR government headquarters, and found an echo chamber for their protest online.
  • Day 2: Theatre. Leung Chun Ying went out to meet the students on the square, but was politely rejected by them – his conduct denounced as ‘theatre’. Meanwhile, the education minister claimed he had ‘silent support’ from the majority of Hong-Kongers, which caused a massive outcry.
  • Day 3: Evening party. This third day – originally planned to mark the end of the movement – climaxed in a range of forums, activities and a concert on the square. New hunger-strikers joined the original three, giving fresh energy to the movement.
  • Day4: Stubborn. The government announced that their role was to be ‘stubborn’ and not give in to protest, which resulted in larger support for the movement.
  • Day 5: First day of school. ATV broadcast a biased report on the movement, denouncing the original strikers as ‘destructive forces’, and talking of foreign manipulation. This report attracted strong criticism from intellectuals and artists.
  • Day 6: Media ethics. As ATV received numerous complaints on their coverage of the event, and more public figures expressed support for the strikers, Eric Ma, professor at the school of communication and journalism, joined the hunger strike.
  • Day 7: Intensify. The Hong Kong Student Federation issued a call for strike on September 11, and a group of 40 young scholars issued a collective letter of support for the protests.
  • Day 8: Support. While vice-chancellor Joseph Sung voiced his support and Hong-Kongers in Britain organised a march, the strikers were joined by hunger strike veterans from the 70s.
  • Day 9: Climax. The evening of that day marked a climax of the movement, with 120,000 people gathering opposite the government headquarters to support the movement.
  • Day 10: Concession. Leung Chun-ying announced in a press conference that the proposed ‘national education’ programme would no longer be made compulsory within three years. Schools would independently decide when and whether to implement it.
  • After ten days: evacuate and reorganize. Following the partial victory represented by the government’s concession, the strike organisers called an end to the occupation, and prepared for a continuation of the movement – with a student strike on September 11 as its first step.

Marco Polo translation: Protesting national education
Original link: 占领十日——“反国民教育科”全记录

A letter to the Chinese mainland youth
By Ye Yin Chung, 16 September 2012

As news of the Hong Kong movement spread on the net, some mainland netizens expressed doubts or even negative reactions to the protest. In this post, academic Ye Yin Chung addresses the most often recurring questions in the form of a Q&A.

1. Why didn’t Hong-Kongers rebel against the British ‘brainwash’ that made them colonial subjects? 
Although there were oppositions to the British government in Hong-Kong, no similar circumstances ever occured, as The British education system had no particular ‘patriotic’ element, and did not try to make Hong-Kongers into British subjects. On the contrary, it encouraged ongoing connection to Chinese culture and history.

2. All governments brainwash their citizens, so why shouldn’t the Chinese government do it?
Although foreign government did try to instill patriotism in their citizens in the past, since the Second World War, the trend has been to replace ‘patriotic’ national education with a broader ‘civic’ education model, which gives space for numerous identities – gender, religious, class, etc – beside national identity. China is one of the few countries that still retains a strong focus on ‘national identity’, and the Hong Kong demonstrations may therefore appear as an oddity in the context of China, but not in a broader context.

3. The contents of the curriculum guide seem rather neutral, and do not deserve the cries of ‘no to brainwashing’ often heard. Aren’t Hong-Kongers just too nervous? 
The word brainwashing here does not refer to totalitarian techniques of extreme ideological pressure, but people had concerns about the way this education would be conducted. First, scholars have pointed out that mixing ‘national’ and ‘moral’ education, starting from primary schools and possibly kindergarten, pose a risk of replacing critical thinking with etiquette. Second, as teachers have no training in this domain, people fear that schools may delegate the delivery of that ‘national’ curriculum to pro-Beijing ‘red’ education organisations.

4. Isn’t it irrational that so many Hong-Kongers shouted against brainwashing who hadn’t read through the guidelines and curriculum material? 
People may not have read the full curriculum, but they were relatively well informed by recent covered in the media, though they had not been aware of the problem earlier. Few people pay attention to the details of curriculum development. Before the protests, the government relied on experts, feigning that they represented the ‘silent majority’. Once informed, the ‘silent majority’ ceased to be so, and expressed their opinion

5. How come no-one opposes the religious brainwashing of Christianism and other religions? 
It is true that many primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong have a religious affiliation, and the criticism of religion as ‘brainwash’ is not without reason. However, there may be two reasons why patriotic national education caused particular concern in Hong Kong: the first is that there are a number of religions in Hong-Kong, making it unlikely that one would dominate; the second is that religion has no political power in Hong-Kong.

6. Isn’t this protest a more radical instance of Hong-Kongers rejecting everything that comes from the mainland? 
There is a tendency from certain Hong-Kongers to reject mainland China, but the relationship between the two is deep and complex. Hong-Kongers feel a deep sense of belonging to Chinese culture: a few participants who rejected learning about contemporary China supported the idea of learning more about Chinese history, and this was a well-received thought. What protesters rejected was a Chinese identity defined by the Chinese Communist Party. Other factors played in, such as concern from the protesters that the new courses would replace critical and independent thinking with a respect for power and etiquette, and more general anxieties about the education system in Hong Kong. The movement should therefore not be interepreted as a rejection of China by Hong Kong, but an expression of their complex relationship, as well as other idiosyncratic factors.

Marco Polo translation: A letter to the Chinese mainland youth
Original link: 叶荫聪:谈香港反国民教育科运动——给中国大陆青年的一封信

To better understand the movement, you may wish to read the initial hunger strike declaration, and the final message issued by the protesting students. You might also wish to read a young man’s letter to his family, explaining his reasons for supporting the movement.

All articles in this digest and a large range of other Chinese readings are accessible at Some are available in English, French and Spanish translation. (You can join the project if you’d like to help with translations.)

Danwei is an affiliate of the Australian Centre on China in the World at The Australian National University. This posting is a result of one project that is part of that on-going collaboration.

China Heritage Quarterly and East Asian History are two other publications supported by the Australian Centre on China in the World.

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