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Is education the next Hong Kong battleground?

Is education the next Hong Kong battleground?
Published 17 Feb 2015 

'The really interesting part of the show is yet to come', ventured the Politburo's point-man on Hong Kong affairs earlier this month, referring to 2014's Occupy Central protests. It seems Beijing has further modifications to the territory's affairs in mind.

Occupy Central protests, Hong Kong, 11 December 2014. (FLICKR/Pasu Au Yeung.)

Recent events are starting to clarify exactly how Hong Kong's governance will be more closely aligned with China: still 'one country, two systems', but with the emphasis on the former.

It was entirely foreseeable that the movement would lose Hong Kong some autonomy; the only question is how much Beijing will now choose to exact. Will China's leaders see the protests last year as the venting of societal steam, to be managed and eventually forgotten? Or will it take a darker view and decide on more draconian control in the future?

The protests wrapped up in mid-December with a whimper. Arrests were made and some criminal charges are pending, but overall the winding up of the roadblocks was an impressive exercise in civility and moderation from both the protesters and the authorities. There was general relief that city life was normalising, which it did quickly.

Some pan-democrat members have threatened to quit their Legislative Council seats in order to force a by-election, and therefore a virtual referendum on universal suffrage, but that would be risky: the electorate seems torn down the middle on whether to accept Beijing's voting scheme for 2017. A democracy march earlier this month drew a modest crowd. Other polls suggest conservative pro-establishment candidates command greater credibility now. [fold]

The Hong Kong Government, sensing the public has shifted to its side, has opened a second round of consultations while sternly warning against the risks of anarchy, the importance of rule of law and the Basic Law's inherent limits to autonomy. It has submitted a report to Beijing, provoking howls of opposition outrage, claiming 'it is the common aspiration of Hong Kongers to have universal suffrage strictly in accordance with the Basic Law and Beijing's rulings.' The local government is attempting to portray confidence that it can independently forge Beijing's designated path to 2017, with or without the democrats onboard.

But warnings from mainland officials on various issues may signify that in the future Beijing will exert a much tighter rein.

A PLA military staff chief has declared the territory a core interest of China which, of course, it is. The term is well understood to have security connotations, particularly with respect to foreign interference (Britain's Foreign Office has voiced support for Beijing's voting framework). Press freedoms are being challenged by mysterious acts of violence against journalists; it has been noted that these criminal attacks are always against the independent press, never against Beijing's newspapers. Some voices are piping up again in support of the dreaded Article 23 national security legislation which caused mass revolt in 2003, although some hardliners scarred by that experience are downplaying the law as 'inappropriate'. In the Leninist fashion reminiscent of the roundups that follow 'mass incidents' on the mainland, a campaign of exemplary prosecution may unfold.

The most significant impact will be on the education sector. Just as Deng Xiaoping concluded that the attitudes of youth were instrumental in the 1989 movement, so the topic of national education will become a future 'ideological battleground', as the state media likes to say.

Chen Zuo'er, a heavyweight adviser to Xi Jinping, maintains China has a national interest in education policy and must 'correctly guide' schools. That's taken by local teachers to mean 'obedience and loyalty, rather than freedom and critical thinking.' A nasty struggle over appointments at Hong Kong University, one of Asia's best, stems from its permission of radical, provocative publications. Beijing in particular objects to 'HongKongism' and its reaction to university independence movements is understandably irate.

There are calls for greater youth appreciation of, and connections to, China. A recent survey suggests only a few percent of Hong Kongers aged 18-29 want to live and work across the border. Schools are being offered funding to institute partnerships with mainland counterparts. A new national cadet program, kitting out kids in PLA uniforms, has raised hackles.

The question is whether the young will be receptive. 'We'll be back' was the combative message they chalked on walls and roads as the students dismantled and departed their giant campsite in December. This year threatens an ongoing test of strength between Hong Kong students and the world's mightiest authoritarian state.

Some are dismayed by the community's lack of resolve. But this was never a challenge Beijing would lose. The real question is whether it will wreak vengeance. The learned scholars behind the Occupy Central movement presumably did understand the risk of a comeback when they encouraged their students to confront the Chinese party-state. Didn't they?

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