Education flaws linked to HK unrest

2019-09-02 08:14:05 China Daily Mo Hong'e

Compulsory liberal studies and textbooks blamed by some for misleading young people

Editor's note: This is the first of two stories in which China Daily will examine educational issues that experts say are a root cause of young people's participation in the Hong Kong protests.

As young people in Hong Kong continue to join protests that have grown increasingly violent, experts have said flaws in the city's education system have played a role in the social unrest.

Some blame the compulsory liberal studies curriculum that is part of Hong Kong's secondary school education, while others find fault with the textbooks that are used.

Since early June, the anti-government demonstrations, which initially targeted the now-suspended extradition law amendment bill, have pitted mostly young protesters against the police. 

In numerous clashes, radicals have run wild, blocking roads, attacking government buildings, vandalizing the Legislative Council building, and besieging police headquarters and numerous police stations.

Black-clad mobs wearing masks, goggles and helmets have fought police with a variety of potentially lethal weapons, including firebombs, slingshots and sharpened metal pipes.

Most of the rioting protesters are not hardened criminals, but ordinary young men and women, including many university students who have, according to some observers, lost their moral bearing.

Charges against the protesters include possession of offensive weapons, assaulting police officers, joining unlawful assemblies and obstructing police. Police records show that among the hundreds of people arrested for taking part in violent protests since June, at least 15 have been under the age of 16.

Former Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hwa has said the blame lies with the liberal studies curriculum at secondary schools, which he said has misled young people.

"The liberal studies curriculum is a failure," said Tung, who is vice-chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the nation's top political advisory body. "It is one of the reasons behind the youth problems today."

His remarks were all the more striking because Tung - who was the first chief executive of the special administrative region after Hong Kong's return to China in 1997 - led the administration that initiated the curriculum.

Eventually, in 2009, liberal studies was made a compulsory subject in the Diploma of Secondary Education curriculum. To be admitted to Hong Kong's universities, students must achieve a grade of at least 2 on a scale of 0 to 5.

The subject has six modules - personal development and interpersonal relationships, Hong Kong today, modern China, globalization, public health, and energy technology and the environment.

Tai Hay-lap, the vice-chairman of the Tin Ka Ping Foundation, a nonprofit charity organization in Hong Kong, said that in addition to the curriculum itself, the textbooks are also a problem. Hong Kong's Education Bureau has failed to ensure the quality of the textbooks, Tai said.

Tai was a member of the city's Education Commission in 2000. Tai, along with then-chairman Antony Leung Kam-chung and another member, Cheng Kai-ming, provided the major force behind the reform of Hong Kong's educational system at that time.

Currently, textbooks are published by different local publishers, and schools can choose whichever textbooks they prefer. Unlike those for the three other compulsory subjects - Chinese, English and mathematics - textbooks of liberal studies do not require the approval of the Education Bureau.

Tai said that is because the bureau has tried to avoid giving the impression of brainwashing students by being seen in any way as censoring the contents about Hong Kong's relationship to the motherland or about current affairs in the city.

Different publishers have differing political views, and the materials in the textbooks they publish might not be comprehensive or neutral, Tai said.

A textbook from one publisher, for instance, features controversial current issues, including a chapter aimed at fostering critical thinking, which encourages students to "occupy the playground" to show their objection to too much homework.

In addition, some content is misleading, so the Education Bureau should be more involved in assessing the textbooks, Tai said.

"The government should either directly provide contents for the publishers, or establish an official scrutiny mechanism for liberal studies textbooks," Tai said.

Besides textbooks, other teaching materials have also been questioned.

"Many fail to show the whole picture," said Ho Lok-sang, dean of business at Chu Hai College of Higher Education.

He cited a slide presentation on the city's Basic Law, which stipulates that a nominating committee must choose candidates for chief executive, that compares the process to parents allowing children to choose toys freely from a handful of pre-chosen toys. Ho said that in the slide presentation, the "description of the provision in the Basic Law is taken totally out of context."

Ho said that because the slide presentation doesn't explain that the nominating committee mechanism was intended to contain risks, the narrative is far from accurate. Parents have also expressed concern about some elements of education.

Sophia Peng, the mother of a secondary school student, said she was shocked by the bias of some liberal studies textbooks.

In addition to calling for the Education Bureau to review the textbooks, she also called on parents to ramp up efforts to guide children to gaining a balanced view.

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