My three-year-old daughter came home one day late last year, proudly waving a paper Chinese national flag that she had made at her kindergarten. The five yellow stars were neatly colored-in amid a sea of red on a piece of paper stuck onto a drinking straw.
“Look, mom, it’s got to have five stars!” she said excitedly. Then she paused.
“Mom, will you take me to see the flag-raising ceremony in Beijing?” she said with her little eyes twinkling expectedly. Then she started humming the Chinese national anthem.
I was taken aback. I murmured: “Yes darling, one day, when you’re older.”
This indoctrination of patriotism is coming a bit too early, I thought. I looked at my daughter and tried to hide my unease.
In the 15 years since Britain handed over this territory to China, Hong Kongers have enjoyed a large degree of freedom and independence from mainland control. But a perceived lack of patriotism among the people here frustrates mainland Chinese officials who do not understand why numerous trade deals aimed at boosting Hong Kong’s economy have failed to win over the hearts of its citizens.
The Hong Kong government, likely prompted by Beijing, has reacted with a new plan to introduce national education classes in the primary and secondary school curriculum in September. Having already witnessed the effect of Communist Party indoctrination on my daughter, I took one look at the new teaching materials and I knew the plan was a step too far.
I was one of the tens of thousands of people who braved scorching heat in humid Hong Kong last Sunday, soaked in sweat, carrying our children on a march under the sweltering sun, saying no to the government’s plan.
The main feature of the new curriculum is a one-sided, totally positive portrayal of Communist Party rule in a government-funded handbook entitled “The China Model.” This teaching material touts the superiority of the Communist regime, depicting its one-party system as “progressive, selfless and united.” It decries multiparty democracy as unfavorable to the livelihoods of ordinary people because, it says, “Malicious fights between political parties lead to people’s suffering.”
The handbook makes no mention of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, the Cultural Revolution, or other political movements that led to the deaths of millions of people. It simply praises the government without mentioning its faults — the lack of democracy and free speech, the ubiquitous human rights abuses and the widespread corruption.
I could accept the handbook’s guidelines if the praise of the Communist Party was balanced by a discussion of its failures. But this one-sided version of history is alarming.
It is true that many Hong Kongers harbor ill feelings toward China. And tensions between the people of our territory and the mainland have been particularly high this year.
Hong Kongers are increasingly frustrated that thousands of mainland women cross the border each year to give birth here — we have better hospitals and offer Hong Kong-born children permanent residency. Many people here blame speculators from the mainland for pushing up local property prices, and there are fears that Beijing will not honor its commitment to eventually allow us to freely elect our own government leaders. Recent charges of mainland interference in our normally free press haven’t helped either.
But with all these complaints, we Hong Kongers have a sense of pride in China. We are, in fact, patriotic.
We never hesitate to give donations to help victims of natural disasters on the mainland or give generously to build schools or infrastructure in rural China. We feel proud when mainland Chinese athletes win medals at the Olympics and when China sends rockets to space. China’s rise as an economic powerhouse makes us feel good.
Even after 150 years of British colonial rule, we never doubt our Chinese identity. Most people in Hong Kong have parents or grandparents who fled the mainland to escape hunger and the upheavals of the bloody civil war in the 1940s, but they remain deeply attached to their roots.
Because we care about our country, we share the pain of the Chinese citizens whose rights are violated. Tens of thousands of people gather every year on the night of June 4 to commemorate the victims of the Tiananmen crackdown. And when a little-known Tiananmen movement activist, Li Wangyang, died under mysterious circumstance in June, over 20,000 people rallied to urge the mainland authorities to investigate his death.
What we object to is the imposition of the party line on our children. We should be allowed to love the country in our own way. Children in Hong Kong need to know about the huge progress that China has made in the past 30 years, but they also have the right to know about the sins of the past. Millions of “class enemies” were killed in Mao Zedong’s “land reforms.” At least 30 million died of starvation during his “Great Leap Forward,” and millions more during the Cultural Revolution.
Students should also learn about the price of official corruption today. During the earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 shoddily built school buildings collapsed and crushed many children who otherwise might have survived.
I want my children to love our country, but I don’t want them to be in love with a false image. I want them to learn about China’s wonderful achievements, but also about the realities of the country’s less-glorious past and current problems.
We all have a responsibility to face with open eyes the mistakes that have been made so that we can help to improve our future.
Verna Yu is a freelance writer.