Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified protester Luke Ng. The story has been corrected.
HONG KONG — Tens of thousands of protesters paraded through Hong Kong on Sunday, waving placards denouncing “brainwashing” by China’s Communist Party and calling for the scrapping of plans for “national education” courses in local schools.
The protest, organized by teachers, parents and student groups as well as local political organizations hostile to Beijing’s one-party system, demonstrated deep opposition to the introduction of classes that aim to boost knowledge of and attachment to China in this freewheeling former British colony of 7.2 million.
China recovered sovereignty over Hong Kong 15 years ago in a blaze of fireworks and patriotic fervor. It granted the metropolis a high degree of autonomy as a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. But Beijing has grown frustrated that many in Hong Kong, though ethnically Chinese, do not identify much with the rest of the country, under Communist rule since 1949.
Although increasingly dependent economically on mainland China, Hong Kong, according to a recent opinion poll by Hong Kong University, now has less trust in the central government in Beijing than at any time since the 1997 handover. Separate polls show that bonds of shared identity with the rest of China have grown weaker, not stronger.
In an effort to narrow the gap, which has led to ugly outbursts of insulting rhetoric and occasional clashes, the Hong Kong government wants students to learn more about their mainland brethren. It has proposed courses to instruct pupils about China’s political system, geography and history, along with the correct etiquette for raising the national flag.
Protesters on Sunday decried this as brainwashing. Placards borrowed lyrics from “Another Brick in the Wall,” a song by the British rock group Pink Floyd: “We don’t need no thought control. Leave them kids alone.” A group of parents and their children waved a poster reading: “Our previous generations came here to escape the Communist Party, don’t let the next generation return to the grip of the demon.”
“I’m Chinese, but China is not the Communist Party,” said Luke Ng, a 16-year-old student in a local Roman Catholic high school. He said he joined Sunday’s protest because he thinks national education will be a form of political indoctrination focused on the party’s achievements and blind to catastrophes that claimed tens of millions of Chinese lives in the 1950s and 60s. “Germans are taught about Nazi crimes, they know what happened. In China, students only learn how to praise the party,” he said.
Hong Kong officials deny that the new courses — due to start in primary schools later this year and secondary schools in 2013 — will mimic “patriotic education” teaching on the mainland, which, mostly silent on the party’s bloody past and centered instead on the misdeeds of foreigners, instills fervent nationalism rooted in a deep sense of victimhood.
“Brainwashing is against Hong Kong’s core values. We would not support or accept that,” Hong Kong’s Education Secretary Eddie Ng said Saturday.
National education was first proposed for Hong Kong in 2010 and prompted a storm of protest. Anger calmed after a lengthy period of public consultation and assurances by the government that it would not dictate content and leave that up to teachers. But fury flared again recently after the publication of a new government-funded textbook, “The China Model.” The text, prepared by a pro-Beijing organization, describes the Communist Party as “selfless and united” and presents it as an indispensable agent for stability and success.
The chairman of the China Civic Education Promotion Association of Hong Kong, a pro-China group lobbying in favor of the new courses, stirred further outrage Saturday by suggesting that Hong Kongers need some “brainwashing.” “If there are problems with the brain, then it needs to be washed, just as clothes need washing if they are dirty and kidneys need dialysis if they are sick,” said Jiang Yudui.
After marching Sunday in blistering sun from Victoria Park in Causeway Bay to the Hong Kong government’s main office complex, protesters chanted “down with brainwashing” and called for Eddie Ng’s resignation. Police said the protest attracted some 32,000 people at its peak while organizers put the crowd at more than 90,000.
Beijing-controlled newspapers and pro-China political groups in Hong Kong have campaigned hard in favor of national education, accusing critics of hysteria and ulterior political motives. Only a handful of people, however, showed up Sunday to try and argue the case that Hong Kong, separated from China during 156 years of British colonial rule, needs to learn more about the country to which it now belongs.
“Don’t be British devils, support national education,” screamed a lone pro-China activist through a bullhorn.