Hong Kong Ombudsman's Probe on Patriotic Education

Besides provoking 90,000 Hong Kong parents, students and teachers to protest-march on July 29, the government’s clumsy attempt to force ‘patriotic education’ on schools has now attracted a probe by the Ombudsman’s Office.

Publicity surrounding the announcement last month that a 36-page booklet extolling China’s virtues would be introduced into Hong Kong’s curriculum has raised concern that Beijing is seeking to force its version of patriotism onto Hong Kong’s schoolchildren. It is emblematic of the fact that residents have been growing increasingly suspicious of the mainland’s motives arising from a litany of issues, ranging from the true loyalties of CY Leung, the new chief executive, mainland mothers displacing locals at maternity facilities, unaffordability of housing blamed on inflow of 'hot' money, censorship at the territory's leading English-language newspaper and wariness over a dangerous public security bill waiting somewhere in the wings.

The Ombudsman is now seeking to establish how HK$12 million taxpayer dollars is being funneled annually without open tender into two pro-Beijing agencies, both headed by the same person, for production of patriotic education materials.

The agencies which enjoy the government’s unusual largesse are the National Education Centre and the National Education Services Centre, both headed by National Peoples’ Congress deputy Yeung Yiu-chung and run by the 26,000 member Federation of Education Workers.

The Ombudsman’s letter notifying the 80,000 strong HK Professional Teachers’ Union of the probe, refers to study of ‘relevant materials’ -- presumably the output of the twin national education outfits -- as the basis for its action.

Before citizens get too excited about the Ombudsman’s involvement, note that his office is also investigating three government departments for failing to curb a hawker stall, the Fisheries Department for not removing stray cats and the Lands Department for not dismantling an unauthorized structure on government property.

Patriotic study tours

While at it, Ombudsman Alan Lai-nin should also check out the Education Bureau’s facilitation and subsidy of reportedly HK$1 million for 450 students from 35 secondary schools in July, to tour scenic spots and the Mao Zedong Relics Museum in Hunan. The Education Bureau does not list the schools involved. It would be useful to know if there is a common thread underpinning this select group which is so favored. The Bureau provided tour booklets which tell how Mao “sought the truth to save the country and citizens.” It doesn’t mention that his policies resulted in the starvation death of an estimated 36 million people, or that he unleashed the Red Guard terror that set the country back by decades.

Part of the student experience includes a display of Chairman Mao’s pajamas replete with 73 repair patches as evidence of his “hardworking, frugal and noble character.” A Hong Kong girl interviewed by Hunan TV News gushed “I think Chairman Mao grandpa is quite amiable.” It is on YouTube. That about wraps up the educational value of the tour.

Funds diverted without open tender

Last year the Donald Tsang administration siphoned HK$86 million for a six-year program of patriotic education to cover teaching materials, study tours and training courses. The Professional Teachers’ Union however does not have any role in the Education Bureau’s program. That has been reserved for the Federation of Education Workers which is paid out of taxpayer dollars without any competitive tendering. What special educational expertise the FEW brings is unclear other than its ‘united front’ role in the education sector.

The Hong Kong government has deviated from standard procurement procedures without transparency or accountability, setting a precedent which the public wants stopped. Why the secrecy in deploying public funds? What else is the administration hiding from its citizens? Why?

Financial Secretary Michael Suen, secretary for Education in the Donald Tsang administration, is widely believed to have engineered the funding for NPC deputy Yeung Yiu-chung, who chairs both the beneficiaries. Incoming Education Secretary Eddie Ng Kam-hai was caught with the dirty secret Michael Suen left behind. His lack of prior briefing showed as he dithered while the patriotic education farce unraveled. Ng was summoned to Beijing and stiffened up to mouth support for what his conscience told him was clearly against Hong Kong’s core values.

Hong Kong citizens and legislators -- outside those complicit in the plot -- are only now becoming aware of the extent of diversion of education funds to unknown agencies for problematic patriotic education campaigns.

National education or indoctrination?

Neither parents, students nor teachers who participated in the protest march through the blazing Sunday heat have any problem with factual national education about the motherland’s culture, traditions, geography, space exploration, economic progress, pollution or ecology. They draw the line at disguised party propaganda, distortion of history, silence on major policy disasters, hero-worshipping of Mao and widespread human rights abuses unacceptable in any civilised society.

That is a crucial distinction the propaganda promoters refuse to acknowledge. They conflate national education with indoctrination. Hong Kong society is too aware and alert for that to fly. They want clarity of intent from their government and professional scrutiny of teaching materials to excise propaganda. Information yes, indoctrination no.

Critical thinking yes, regimentation no.

Warnings to ‘troublemakers’

A Basic Law Committee stalwart of the Standing Committee of The National Peoples’ Congress, Lau Nai-keung, used his column in the South China Morning Post on Aug 3 to warn the territory’s citizens of punishment for challenging authority. The piece, titled ‘Hong Kong courts disaster with culture of opposition’ intimated that Beijing’s patience is running out for ungrateful residents who refuse to salute the wisdom of the Party. Lau raised the specter of a China challenged by external and internal threats and declared that Hong Kong is a ’springboard’ to destabilize the mainland, suggesting Beijing would move beyond benevolence to squash dissidents if they don’t hew to the party line.

Lau doesn’t spell out what these external and internal threats are. How punishing Hong Kong parents, teachers and students for demanding a clear separation between education and propaganda can resolve China’s domestic contradictions, remains unclear.

The legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party itself is being challenged on the mainland by village communities left behind in the Dengist economic reforms of the last three decades. The wealth gap, rampant official corruption, theft of farmlands by bullying party apparatchiks, polluting industrial facilities that poison rivers and the food-chain, tainted milk and other food products churned out by factories protected by local chieftains, arbitrary arrest and torture of citizens who dare protest and petition for their rights and arrogant abuse of power and privilege, coalesce into the cracked social mirror that scares the ghosts who unleash these iniquities.

The ‘divine right to rule’ of the last imperial regime was ended by Sun Yat Sen’s republican revolution of 1911. The Chinese Communist Party re-educated the last Emperor as a repair workshop mechanic after releasing him from prison in 1959. The CCP has no divine right to rule either. Respect for the Party has to be earned.

More mature heads at the apex of the CCP leadership are preparing to announce an inclusive development policy to address the wealth gap, environmental degradation, social equity and the cancer of corruption at all levels of the Party, in the October session of the 18th National Peoples’ Congress which will confirm the fifth generation CCP leaders.

Hong Kong’s citizens do not fear their government. Dissidents do not expect to be kidnapped in the dead of night by secret police. Their families are not punished. They do not ‘disappear’ nor are they ‘suicided’ in custody.

The incoming leadership in China will hopefully have the greater wisdom and confidence to finally liberate citizens from abuse by an unfettered police state apparatus, six decades after the promise of social justice. That, Hong Kong’s children would be glad to learn about in school.