HONG KONG – After less than 100 days in office, C.Y. Leung, Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive, is already in political intensive care. In record time, he has managed to lose his veneer of competence, credibility, and steely leadership.
One of his cabinet appointees was arrested for corruption within two weeks of Leung’s assumption of his official duties. Another was found to have been a slumlord who owned illegal cage-like flats that he blamed entirely on his wife, denying any involvement whatsoever. Leung himself was caught with several illegal structures in his house, a violation that he exploited successfully against his rival, Henry Tan, in the election campaign.
Leung has also distinguished himself by inciting a large swathe of school teachers and students to stage massive street protests against his hasty effort to insert a “national education” program into the school curriculum in order to “reconnect” Hong Kong’s young people with the motherland. For tens of thousands of student protesters, many with their parents in tow, the potential death of an honest education was too much to bear.
The goal of the program, inherited from the previous administration, is a good one: expand knowledge among the young about modern China. But, as Tan correctly pointed out in response to a question about the protests, the “devil is in the details.”
What triggered the uproar was the appearance of a “model” textbook, financed by the government and published by a pro-China think tank. The textbook contains mostly propaganda, including assertions that China’s one-party system is wonderful, whereas multiparty democracy as practiced in the United States has created harmful social turbulence. It offers no discussion of the lethal policies since 1949 that led to the persecution and starvation of tens of millions of Chinese. Nor does it mention the fratricidal political movements from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution. The program was clearly meant to indoctrinate, not educate.
Massive protests forced Leung to withdraw a deadline to implement the new curriculum. He has also given the schools flexibility concerning when and perhaps how to introduce it. Since nearly all schools are dependent on government subsidies, the grant of flexibility is widely perceived to be a tactical delay. With the job security of schoolmasters at risk, most are sure to implement the program.
The protesters, led by a 15-year-old student, now a folk hero, have retreated, but that, too, is a tactical decision. The students have promised to continue to fight the program until it is scrapped.
But why does China’s government seek to impose the curriculum in the first place? After all, Hong Kong has one of the world’s most educated populations: the city has, in per capita terms, perhaps more graduates of the world’s top 20 universities than anywhere outside of Manhattan.
Nevertheless, after more than 60 years in power, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to retain a deep sense of insecurity. The Internet may be ubiquitous in modern China, but YouTube and Facebook, so accepted as a part of normal life around the world, are still banned, and the Public Security Bureau has built a vast Internet monitoring system to filter and censor whatever China’s leaders believe they must fear.
While dissent is the lifeblood of any open society, for China it is a dangerous poison. Moreover, China fears that Hong Kong, with a population of less than eight million, might present a systemic problem as an alternative form of government, even though many Communists and their allies hold key positions in Hong Kong’s private and public sectors.
Instead of accepting that “love” cannot be enforced and must be won, Hong Kong’s over-zealous “patriots” cannot wait to show their loyalty by trying to mandate primitive propaganda. Few in Hong Kong are buying the political elite’s mantra that the national education program is the “right” thing to do. They know that practically all of the ruling elite’s children attend expensive schools in the United States and the United Kingdom, where they would be shielded from the mindless drivel at home.
Leung’s son, for example, is reportedly a student at Winchester College, one of the UK’s most exclusive boarding schools. And most, if not all, of the children of the ruling elite in Beijing are in a similar position. The daughter of Xi Jinping, the presumptive future leader who has now reemerged from an unexplained absence, is attending Harvard under an assumed name. Disgraced ex-Politburo member Bo Xilai’s hard-partying son, Bo Quaqua, attended Harrow, Winston Churchill’s alma mater, then Oxford and Harvard. Their parents clearly know that “national education” is not needed for a good education.
Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s younger generation is losing confidence in democracy. Popular elections do not translate into representation in a system designed by China to ensure that its allies win a majority every time. As a result, more and more young people are turning to street demonstrations to make their voices heard. And, while no one in Hong Kong wants independence from China, continued strong-arm tactics to force Hong Kong to “love” China could begin to inspire such sentiments.
Leung’s tone-deafness to popular feeling revives one of the main issues that he managed to dodge during the election campaign. At the time, he denied vehemently that he was a member of the CCP. He claimed that he had only Hong Kong’s interest in mind within the limits of China’s “one country, two systems” formula. So far, however, he seems inclined to make one of those systems resemble the other.
But China’s national interest is to ensure that Hong Kong remains a first-rate city, modern and open. Pulling Hong Kong down, in the name of patriotism, can only impede the advance to modernity that all of China needs to become truly great.
Shaw Sin-Ming, a former visiting fellow at Oxford University, is a private investor.