Protesters besiege Hong Kong plaza as crisis over ‘national education’ mounts


Retired teacher James Hon Lin-shan participates in an ongoing hunger strike during a demonstration urging the government to cancel a new course called "Moral and National Education," which is to be introduced into the school curriculum. (Kin Cheung/AP)
September 6, 2012

Hunger-striking Hong Kong students and their supporters have taken control of a city plaza here amid accusations from Communist Party-controlled media of a Western-backed conspiracy by “black hands” intent on sowing chaos.

The standoff — which features echoes of the 1989 pro-democracy protests in China’s Tiananmen Square — marks a dramatic escalation in a long campaign by students, teachers and parents against the introduction of “national education” courses in Hong Kong schools. The courses are part of an effort to boost a sense of shared identity with the rest of China.

The hunger strike itself, launched last week outside government headquarters in this former British colony, involves fewer than 10 people. But thousands of others, mostly teenagers, have flocked to show support, filling a plaza in front of the government complex with banners, tents, sleeping bags and loudspeakers.

Protesters condemn the courses as “brainwashing” and a violation of the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong was returned to China 15 years ago after more than a century and half of colonial rule.

Officials here strenuously deny this characterization and say their aim is to promote a greater understanding of China, not obedience to China’s ruling party.

Beijing has long pushed authorities in Hong Kong to narrow what opinion polls suggest is a widening gulf between local residents and mainlanders, who have flooded into Hong Kong to shop and, in some cases, give birth in the city’s well-equipped hospitals.

While the vast majority of Hong Kong’s 7 million people are ethnically Chinese, surveys show that bonds of shared identity with the rest of China have grown weaker, not stronger, since Britain pulled out in 1997. According to a poll released this summer by Hong Kong University, Hong Kongers have less trust in the central government in Beijing than at any time since China regained sovereignty.

Alarmed by the national education crisis and facing tough decisions about whether to relax already weak restrictions on the number of mainland visitors, Leung Chun-ying, the city’s recently installed leader, abruptly canceled a trip this week to the Russian Pacific port city of Vladivostok, where he had been due to attend an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting. The trip was to have been Leung’s first overseas since he took office July 1 ; he was selected for the top government post in March by a 1,200-member committee stacked with tycoons and other pro-Beijing grandees.

While Leung and other Hong Kong officials have sought to calm tempers by addressing concerns about the controversial classes, media outlets that reflect the views of China’s Communist Party have added fuel to the fire by denouncing student activists as pawns in an alleged political conspiracy.

Beijing used the same conspiracy-obsessed rhetoric in 1989 to vilify student protesters who gathered in Tiananmen Square — and also staged a hunger strike — to press party leaders for greater freedom and an end to official corruption. The party, divided over how to respond, called in the army to crush the protest in a hail of gunfire.

There have been no signs that the Hong Kong government has plans to use force to end the encampment outside its main office complex in the city’s Admiralty district. But the showdown has highlighted a dilemma faced by Hong Kong officials: They are nominally responsible for all policy decisions, except for foreign affairs and defense, but they face strong pressure from Beijing to curb what Chinese officials and their supporters in Hong Kong view as politically motivated “chaos.”

In an editorial Tuesday, Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper controlled by the party, said students opposed to the classes are part of a “plot by Western anti-China, anti-Communist forces” to “separate Hong Kong youth from their nation and from identification with their country.”

Describing the scene in front of government headquarters as “disgusting,” a separate commentary in the same newspaper fumed that “even more disgusting are the political ‘black hands’ who don’t declare their goals.”

The paper printed a photograph of veteran pro-democracy activist Martin Lee visiting the hunger strikers, citing his appearance as evidence of a conspiracy to use public anger over the education program to boost votes for China’s critics in local elections, due to be held this weekend.

A Hong Kong television station, ATV, echoed the party line with a news commentary Monday that derided the student activists as stooges for pro-democracy politicians allegedly backed by Washington and London. The broadcast drew a flood of more than 10,000 complaints from viewers.

Elsie Leung Oi-sie, Hong Kong’s former justice secretary and a leading pro-Beijing figure, voiced support for the national education courses, which are to start this year in some schools but will not become mandatory for three more years. She told local media that the protesters’ tactics risk pushing Hong Kong into a “state of anarchy.”

Students angrily dismissed the accusations as part of a party-dictated script for dealing with dissent.

“This is not anarchy but a peaceful struggle. We are using our own bodies to oppose the government,” said Gil Lee, a 24-year-old student at Hong Kong’s City University who fasted for more than 90 hours. The government’s plan to teach students about China, he said, “is not education, but a political tool to increase support for the communist government” in Beijing.

Heidi Ma, a 17-year-old student activist with the group Scholarism, scoffed at accusations of manipulation by outside forces. “There are no ‘black hands.’ We are just a group of students,” she said, speaking over the din of loudly amplified speeches delivered from a makeshift stage at the entrance to the government complex. Students, she said, want to keep their distance from the agendas of other groups.

On Tuesday, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, an organization dedicated to the memory of those killed in 1989 in Beijing, drew loud cheers when it brought a replica of a statue erected in Tiananmen Square to the hunger strikers’ encampment.

But organizers demanded that the so-called Goddess of Democracy replica be removed to avoid playing into their critics’ conspiracy theories.

Ma blamed the incident on “miscommunication” and said the Hong Kong protests should focus on forcing the government to scrap its national education plans and not be distracted by other issues.

“There is nothing wrong with loving your country, but you can’t force people to love,” she said. “What the government wants is thought control and brainwashing.”

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