As Hong Kong prepares to mark the 15th anniversary of its return to Chinese rule with celebratory fireworks and also angry street protests, Cheung Kwok-wah, a senior education bureau official, is grappling with a particularly sensitive task: how to teach students in this former British colony to identify more with China.

“It is not an easy issue,” acknowledged Cheung, whose efforts to develop a new school curriculum to promote greater awareness of and identification with the “motherland” have stirred howls of protest from educators, the Roman Catholic Church and pro-democracy activists fearful of Communist Party “brainwashing.”

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997, under a formula known as “one country, two systems” and has retained wide-ranging liberties that make it China’s freest city by far. While few here mourn the end of British colonialism, Hong Kong and Beijing have starkly different views of what it means to be part of China.

The gulf will be on display beginning on Friday when Communist Party leader Hu Jintao is due to make a tightly choreographed and heavily policed visit to attend anniversary festivities and the swearing in on Sunday of Leung Chun-ying, a prosperous land surveyor, as Hong Kong’s new leader, or chief executive — and tens of thousands of locals are expected to take to the street in protest.

Though increasingly intertwined economically with the rest of China, Hong Kong, according to a recent opinion poll, now has less trust in the central government in Beijing than at any time since the 1997 handover. Suspicion runs so deep that when Chinese military vehicles were sighted earlier this month on busy streets during a routine rotation of forces, local newspapers and Internet sites responded with warnings that Beijing is moving in extra muscle to confront protesters in the event of trouble during Hu’s visit. A spokesman for the People’s Liberation Army dismissed this as “rubbish.” Hong Kong’s head of security assured residents that local police are responsible for law and order and do not need help from the PLA.

Guard of Honor of the People’s Liberation Army of China performs during the rehearsal of the International Military Tattoo in Hong Kong, as part of celebrations ahead of the 15th anniversary of the territory's handover to Chinese rule on July 1. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)
Mood of mistrust

This mood of mistrust has also engulfed plans by the education bureau to introduce mandatory courses in schools on “moral and national education.” First proposed in 2010 and due to include lessons on Chinese government bodies and the correct etiquette for raising the national flag, the program ran into a storm of criticism during public consultations and was recently revised to give teachers more leeway on what topics they cover. Originally due to start in some schools later this year, the courses have now been put off for a year.

“The Communist Party puts an equal sign between itself and China,” said Fung Wai Wah, president of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, which opposes “national education” teaching. Fung said he identifies with China but not its ruling Communist Party, whose rule his parents — like many other residents here — fled to Hong Kong to escape. “We suspect they are trying to brainwash our students,” he said, noting that the Party frequently deploys nationalism to silence critics.

Identity has become one of the most sensitive issues in Hong Kong, a largely autonomous “special administrative region” where around 95 percent of the population is ethnically Chinese and feels great pride in Chinese culture and history but also prizes the liberties and rule of law that separate their city from the rest of the country.

A public opinion survey released this week by Hong Kong University showed that Hong Kong residents increasingly identify themselves as “Hong Kongers” rather than “Chinese,” with only 18 percent of those surveyed choosing “Chinese” as their primary identity. More than 45 percent of those polled said they see themselves as “Hong Kongers,” up from 34 percent in a poll conducted in August 1997 just after Britain pulled out. Identification with Hong Kong rather than China is particularly strong among young people, the survey showed.

The results will disappoint Beijing, whose representative office in Hong Kong responded with fury early this year to an earlier round of polling that first drew attention to shrinking attachment to the People’s Republic of China. Party-controlled media outlets launched a vitriolic campaign of denunciation against Robert Chung, the head of Hong Kong University’s Public Opinion Programme, accusing him of seeking to split Hong Kong from the rest of China and even foment a separatist movement akin to those in Tibet and the restive Muslim region of Xinjiang. Chung denied any such intention.

Frictions between Hong Kong residents and mainlanders have risen sharply as millions have flocked into Hong Kong from the rest of China for short visits, mostly for shopping and tourism but sometimes to give birth and thus obtain Hong Kong residency rights for their children. Last year, about 28 million mainlanders visited Hong Kong, a city of just 7 million. Fearful of being swamped, anti-mainland campaigners took out newspaper advertisements earlier this year denouncing their compatriots from across the border as “locusts.” A Peking University professor also stoked passions by reviling Hong Kong residents as “dogs” in thrall to British co­lo­ni­al­ism.

‘A lonely island’

Cheung, the education official, said frictions don’t reflect a deep divide but are the natural result of decades of separation from and ignorance of the rest of China. Under colonial rule, he said, Hong Kong was presented in schools as “a lonely island” disconnected from China. “National education” doesn’t aim to diminish Hong Kong’s own identity, he added, but only to teach students about the country to which they belong: “We are now part of China so we need to know about China.”

Under British rule, which began in 1841 at the end of the First Opium War, Hong Kong schools mostly avoided teaching about contemporary China, confining the study of Chinese history to periods before the 1949 communist revolution and downplaying topics that might stir Chinese nationalism. Mainland schools, in contrast, have for years put nationalism at the center of education, presenting the Party as the only true vehicle for China’s national aspirations.

Beijing officials have no formal say in Hong Kong education but have cheered its “national education” plans, expressing hope that greater knowledge of China, particularly of the suffering it endured at the hands of Britain and other colonial powers in the 19th century, will reduce Hong Kongers’ wariness of China’s current system. “If you don’t have such knowledge, you will find it difficult to understand why China chose the way of socialism in 1949,” Wang Guangya, the head of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said during a visit here last summer.

The Party’s critics also believe Hong Kong needs to learn more about China, but they focus not on the humiliations of colonialism but on Hong Kong’s long tradition as an incubator for ideas banned on the mainland. Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the 1911 revolution that toppled the Qing dynasty, used Hong Kong to rally support and funding for his revolutionary cause, as did early Communist Party leaders such as Zhou Enlai, who took refuge here in the 1920s. Today, Hong Kong remains a center for dissent, publishing books and magazines that are banned elsewhere in China and providing a haven for dissidents.

“If we don’t speak out on what is bad in China we will be sacrificing the long role of Hong Kong in China’s democratic development,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, a local legislator and head of a group that organizes an annual candle-light vigil to commemorate those who died during the People Liberation Army’s 1989 assault on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. This year’s vigil drew roughly 180,000 people, the biggest turnout yet, according to organizers.

Lee said he has no problem with “national education” in principle but “it depends on who is teaching and what.”

Born across the border, Lee came to Hong Kong as a small child when his family fled the Communists. “We are not anti-Communist because we don’t know about China. . . . We have first-hand experience,” he said.

Lee worries that Hong Kong authorities, under pressure from Beijing, now want to “brainwash people to identify with the successes of China but not with its problems. They want to brainwash student into supporting the Party.”

Cheung of the Education Bureau strongly denied any such intent, saying “national education” does not aim to promote loyalty but “critical thinking and moral values.” Curriculum guidelines, he said, call for discussion of controversial topics, not just feel-good stories about China. “There are no taboo issues,” Cheung said.