Student pro-democracy group Scholarism makes a gesture at the Flag Raising Ceremony at Golden Bauhinia Square. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

Until the dying days of British rule in Hong Kong, there was no place for politics or controversy in education. Chinese history, as far as the school curriculum was concerned, ended in with the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, and local current affairs were not really anybody’s business but the colonial rulers’.

“The British government didn’t want us to learn about what was happening in the day-to-day politics in Hong Kong,” said Ip Kin-yuen, a legislator and chief executive of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union. “We were taught to behave ourselves, to follow instructions from our elders, to be submissive and obedient.”

How times have changed. A short walk from Ip’s office, thousands of students and schoolchildren form the vanguard of a protest movement that has defied and embarrassed the governments of Hong Kong and China.

It is very far from anarchy — many students sit at desks diligently doing their homework — but it is still a spear in the side of the Chinese Communist Party and its conservative allies in Hong Kong.

For Hong Kong’s establishment, it is tempting to ask: What went wrong?

The sight of so many students on the barricades has reopened a long debate here about the role of education in politics and society, a debate that is central to questions of democracy and of Hong Kong’s place within China.

The problem, argue conservative voices such as the pro-Beijing Ta Kung Pao newspaper, lies in the schools. Teachers and university professors “lack a sense of nationhood, and have blindly inculcated the young with Western ideas like universal values and democracy,” the newspaper wrote in a recent editorial. “Textbooks have failed to shoulder the duty of propaganda.”

Conservatives take aim at a relatively new course called Liberal Studies designed to teach secondary school students to think critically about such issues as modern China and today’s Hong Kong, as well as topics including globalization and the environment. Blaming it for fanning the current unrest, they want Liberal Studies replaced as a compulsory subject by Chinese history, with a syllabus that looks at the motherland through much more rose-tinted glasses.

So should schools teach young Hong Kongers more respect for their elders and their bosses in Beijing?

“People are querying education because they are not getting the type of citizens they want to sustain a not-so-democratic society,” said Ip, who argues that Hong Kong needs democracy — and students who can ask the right questions.

“The curriculum is not the only reason the younger generation are taking to the streets; the main reason is because the political system here is distorted and is not helping us resolve our problems fairly.”

In the establishment’s heavy-handed attempt to instill “Chinese values,” liberals hear disturbing echoes of the “thought reform” and patriotic re-education campaign that followed the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, when dissent was crushed, students were sent to army boot camps and universities were brought to heel.

Graduates from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University pose for souvenir photos. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

It is a campaign that may have worked in the mainland, producing a modern generation much more politically quiescent than their forebears. But it is not nearly so effective in Hong Kong, where years of efforts to promote “Chinese values” have largely backfired.

Today, opinion polls show that young people here increasingly identify as Hong Kongers rather than Chinese citizens. And these are youngsters who grew up almost entirely under Chinese rule.

Yet it should perhaps not come as a surprise.

Even Britain’s education policy was only partially successful here: Belying Hong Kong’s apolitical reputation, there is a long tradition of student protests, and Ip was among those who wrote to the leaders of Britain and China in 1983 asking for Hong Kong to be granted democracy.

The debate over Hong Kong’s education really took shape as the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule approached. Liberals fought to promote civic values, and bring up a young generation able to take an interest in running the territory; conservatives, keen to please their future masters in Beijing, promoted a “patriotic” reading of China and its relationship with Hong Kong.

“Even before the handover, the curriculum was increasingly trying to socialize students as Chinese citizens,” said Edward Vickers, an expert in Chinese education at Japan’s Kyushu University. “You have to ask why it is not striking a chord with students, because I don’t think it is.”

In 2007, the conservative efforts received an extra push when China’s president at the time, Hu Jintao, came to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the handover, and prodded the authorities to foster “a strong sense of national identity,” especially among the young, and emphasize the “great tradition of ‘ loving the motherland and loving Hong Kong.’ ”

But efforts to please Hu backfired badly in 2012, when Hong Kong’s establishment clumsily tried to introduce a program of Moral and National Education. Teaching materials designed with the help of mainland scholars took aim at U.S. democracy, lauded Communist rule and failed to mention the Tiananmen protests. They were much derided.

Schoolchildren boycotted classes and took to the streets. The government backed down, and the movement formed in that struggle, known as Scholarism, has been at the forefront of the current democracy protests.

“That’s the big mistake the pro-Beijing camp keeps making in Hong Kong,” Vickers said. “They are doing these things largely to impress the apparatchiks in Beijing, but this just doesn’t play in Hong Kong. They can pull the levers as much as they want, but nothing is going to happen. And not only will nothing happen, they will make the problems worse.”

Scholarism’s leader, Joshua Wong, was just 15 when those protests broke out. At 18, he is now a leading figure on the barricades.

“If the government tries to change the curriculum, and reduce teaching about democracy and core values like freedom of speech, it will just give students more motivation to join the movement,” he said.

On the barricades, it is obvious that students’ concerns run far deeper than what they might have learned at school, and, as they pore over their smartphones, that their sources of information are far wider than their textbooks.

Many students here see an economic system that is stacked against them and a government that fails to represent them. “The curriculum is not the root of the question. It’s the tycoons, the establishment guys and the vested interests,” said 18-year-old Max Lau, another of Scholarism’s young leaders. “We are merely the audience in this drama.”

Kris Cheng Lok-chit and Xu Jing contributed to this report.