24 August 2012

Virtue of the Vicious 邪惡的美德


The new school year is set to commence in a week’s time. Hundreds of thousands of elementary school children will begrudgingly put down their video game consoles and return to the classroom. Depending on the school they attend, some of them will find a curious new subject squeezed into their already jam-packed timetable. It’s called Moral and National Education (德育及國民教育) or MNE. Inside the P-1 classroom and atop the teacher’s desk, a stack of never-before-seen textbooks await: a glossy paperback with the Great Hall of the People on the cover. Flip to the chapter “I learned the National Anthem Today” and there are instructions for an in-class activity: sing along to The March of the Volunteers and repeat after the teacher: “I am proud to be Chinese!”

Taught to be proud

National education is an initiative eight years in the making. Taking directives from Beijing, Donald Tsang’s administration began designing a program in 2004 with the sole goal to instill patriotism in the city’s youths. The motive is clear. Party leaders up north have long been fed up with the islanders down south who identify themselves as “Hong Kongers” rather than Chinese. Since the Handover, negative press coverage of the Motherland, competition from rival cities like Shanghai and Beijing, and the daily cultural clashes with Mainland tourists have all contributed to a growing anti-China sentiment in the former British colony. Beijing is convinced that our lack of national identity is a result of British colonial brainwashing. As one commentator for The China Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, puts it: “the [British] colonial rule sought every means to alienate Hong Kong and the Mainland, [and] sow the seeds of estrangement between us...” The white-washed population in Hong Kong needs to be reprogrammed. And since indoctrination is most effective if started at an early age, what better place to begin than first grade? 

Consider it Donald Tsang’s parting gift to Hong Kong. In his final policy address before leaving office in disgrace, Tsang proposed the introduction of MNE as a standalone subject in primary schools by 2012 and in secondary schools a year later. As is the case for many of his policies, Tsang short-circuited the public consultation process and drew widespread opposition from concerned parents and teachers. Tsang and his education minister were caught flat-footed and had to come up with a face-saving compromise. This past January, the Education Bureau offered a truce: a three-year grace period allowing grade schools to voluntarily adopt MNE beginning in 2012 with the subject  becoming mandatory in 2015. That explains why only some – not all – elementary schools in the city will roll out MNE when the fall term begins next week. The trailblazers consist of two groups: government schools and so-called “red schools” that rely on funding from Beijing-backed organizations.


The handbook that became a lightning rod


Then came The China Model (《中國模式》), a controversial handbook published by the National Education Service Centre (NESC) founded and funded by the Education Bureau. Intended as a guideline for MNE teachers, it is an unabashed tribute to Communist China that praises its achievements and mentions none of its failures. One-party rule, for instance, is hailed as a superior political model to multi-party democracy plagued by endless bickering and paralyzing partisanship. The handbook is so biased it makes the description of the Pacific War in a Japanese history textbook look fair and balanced. The public was shocked, for it needed no further evidence that MNE is Orwellian brainwashing in poor disguise. In an abrupt about-face, government officials disavowed the NESC and called the handbook “rubbish.” But it was too late. On one of the hottest Sundays on record, 90,000 outraged parents and educators took to the streets demanding the entire program be scrapped. Another mass rally has already been planned for 1 September.


The 29 July rally, another one is being planned


Even without the misguided guidelines to stoke our fear, national education is a dangerous notion that any reasonable person should categorically reject. It was Oscar Wilde who famously said that patriotism is the virtue of the vicious. In most of the civilized world, elementary schools have a class called “civic education” that teaches children the basic tenets of democracy, branches of government and civic responsibilities. The subject is not to be confused with national education, although that’s exactly what government officials have led uninformed parents to believe. It is true that history classes in other countries often present facts and events that put them in a positive light. In America, for instance, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are portrayed as demigods who defended settlers’ rights against British oppression (despite their ownership of plantations and hundreds of slaves), and the country’s westward expansion is taught in terms of the beautifully-phrased “manifest destiny” (while the decimation of the Native Indian population is glossed over). Nevertheless, patriotism is never overtly taught, let alone having an entire class devoted to it. If a school in Germany were to launch a curriculum to inculcate national pride, one that measures a student’s performance not by his aptitude but by his “emotional attachment” to the Vaterland, it would cause a riot throughout Europe. But that’s exactly what Beijing is pushing upon our city. In typical Mainland style, an idea so outdated and out-of-step with the rest of the world is being shoved down our throats. The heavy-handed approach to public policy, perhaps, is the true China Model.

In the West, there is nothing "national" 
about civic education

What about our teachers? Can we not count on them as gatekeepers to keep biased materials out of the classroom? The answer depends on the schools and their source of funding. Schools that are financially well-off, such as the elite schools that rely heavily on parent contributions, will hold out until 2015 and write their own teaching materials once MNE becomes mandatory. On the other hand, cash-strapped schools that have been hit hard by low enrollment due to the city’s dwindling birth rate, will have to choose between principles and survival. They are particularly susceptible to the propaganda machine. What's more, these schools tend to serve less affluent areas where parents are either too busy or unable to detect, let alone reverse, ethnocentric indoctrination. There are also fears that MNE as a standalone subject would become a launching pad for bigger things to come: a three-day cultural visit to the Mainland, all expenses paid with the national flags and pin buttons thrown in. Impressionable six-year-olds may well return from their outreach waving Mao’s Little Red Book and humming “without the Communist Party, there would be no new China,” the first line of a popular propaganda song.  

Propaganda targeting young children


The irony of the national education saga is that Hong Kongers are among the most patriotic Chinese. We respond to every natural disaster in the Mainland, from the Eastern China Floods to the Sichuan Earthquake, with unprompted and unreserved generosity. At every Olympic Games, we cheer on the national team with genuine pride. Just a week ago, a handful of Hong Kong activists made an audacious attempt to land on the Diaoyus (釣魚台) to assert Chinese sovereignty over the disputed islands. Whether you agree with the bravado or not, what they did was done out of patriotism. But patriotism has a very different meaning in the Mainland. It means a pledge of allegiance to a party that, despite its many achievements in the past 30 years, condones widespread corruption, tortures rights activists and refuses to face up to its failures and tattered human rights record. Those reasons, rather than ignorance or British colonial brainwashing, are why Hong Kongers have such a hard time identifying themselves as “Chinese.” That's something Beijing will never understand.

Patriotism in action


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This article also appears on SCMP.com under Jason Y. Ng's column "As I See It."

As posted on SCMP.com

21 comments:

  1. You are right, Jason. "This is something Beijing will never understand."

    Andrew

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  2. Thanks for picking up on that, Andrew. You are an astute reader!

    Jason

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  3. Jason, great to read your blog. I love it every time I see it. Bit I think you're misled about patriotism in schools in the US. Daily oath of allegiance and national anthem, and that stuff about the flag...and even we Europeans, ideally civilised as we are, sometimes succumb to jingoistic tub-thumping, even in front of the innocent young.

    Dom

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  4. Thanks for your comment, Dom. I have no objection to reciting the pledge of allegiance or singing the national anthem. I am not a fan of these practices but I don't find them nearly as egregious as making a class out of it. And jingoism is the reason why "nationalism" should be a dirty word and patriotism should never overtly taught in the classroom.

    Jason

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  5. I LOVED the article. I Can't agree more.

    Emanuela

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  6. good article , thank you Jason.

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  7. Enjoyed reading it a lot! As a parent, I feel very compassionate about this, nothing is as important as education and the upbringing environment for the next generations. The current failing system is enough to push parents sending their kids overseas. Feel deeply for my friends having to send their children who have barely completed F1 or F2 to a strange country, just to escape the inadequate education system at home. This is another blow to the poor parents in HK!

    Margaret

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  8. Margaret,

    I recently read an article about how national education and other failed policies in Hong Kong have a disproportionate impact on the working class and the middle class, since only the wealthy can afford to send their kids overseas or to international schools.

    Jason

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  9. A brilliant piece of article, really very well-written! I like the last paragraph most, so true!!

    Lily M.

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  10. Thanks, Lily. As a teacher, you must feel particularly strongly about this issue. Feel free to use my article to discuss the controversy in class. I'm interested to know what your students think!

    Jason

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  11. Always thought we should have a master history book, compilation of each country, listing BOTH their achievements and failures. Put it all out there for all of us to relate to. Help us see our bias, be honest w/ ourselves. Agreed with entire article.

    Lily J

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  12. You used to be able to buy an almanac in the U.S. with a a brief history of different countries and brief commentaries. Now there's always wikipedia.

    Jason

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  13. Jason,

    Is "National Education' really that vicious ?? 為了一本粗劣、不知所謂的國民教材,是否便要將國民教育標籤為「洗腦」的工具、披着羊皮的狼!我認為推行國民教育,從來就不應該是「阿爺」強加給「狼」政府的政治任務。作為一個龍的傳人,難道就不應該去認識自已的國家和民族嗎?我想,歸根究底,都是一個「不信任」的問題,茅頭指向不單是「狼」政府,「中共」亦然。香港社會明顯地潛藏著糾纏不清的反共情結。

    You said : "That's something Beijing will never understand", I totally agreed. 難道我們何嘗又完全明白?沒有一個國家是完美,中國亦然。更沒有一個政府是沒有貪腐犯錯的,中外皆是,即使是滿口自由平等、人權至上的美國,雙手同樣沾滿了屠殺印第安人的鮮血,為了國家利益,為了演好「世界警察」的角色,罔顧國民生命,發動依拉克戰爭,多少的生靈淘汰、生離死別、心靈創傷? "That's something we really need to understand ?!"

    Jason, thanks for this insightful article. It's really good food for thought. Look forward to your coming pieces then !

    Cheers,
    Jean

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  14. Thanks, Jean. The anti-Communist sentiment in Hong Kong is well-founded. In any event, the love for one's country should never be equated with the love for its government or ruling regime.

    Jason

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  15. Yes, it is. I wish that people could have that clear mind to differentiate it. ~~

    Cheers,
    Jean

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  16. "It is the duty of the patriot to protect his country from his government" Thomas paine

    If a country have things to be proud of then people will naturally be proud of their motherland, there is no need to drill it in people's head. Certainly in Western countries as you mentioned there are no equivalent of MNE, the closest thing is civic education which is not the same. But are they any less patriotic than Chinese people?

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  17. I could cry after reading this piece, and I bet I’ll live in constant fear if they do not scrap the program, unless I leave for somewhere else for good. When leaving Hong Kong is the last thing on my mind, this place which I call home (don’t blame me for my “patriotism” here, if it is at all. It is more an attachment to my motherland, yup, I can’t quite identify the PRC as my motherland.)

    The Mainlanders in Hong Kong are treating us the same way as they’d treat one another in the Mainland, without courtesy nor respect, and certainly we don’t categorise as that class generically termed as “homo sapiens”.

    Question: how much more indoctrination can we all take?

    I have to say I have no idea the whole scheme goes that far back in the Donald Duck’s administration years. As for the negative press coverage, they should adopt other means to wipe that out! Legend has it that one king has said that he destroyed his enemies not be wiping nations out but by befriending them. Certainly we don’t want to assimilate into the corruption and poverty gap culture, but it is not rocket science to do something constructive on both sides to mend the ills if all would just be rational and listen to each other ???

    I almost flared up on the word “reprogrammed”. Pardon me, we don’t need the reprogramming, we are not machines! All life long I have been taught to, and I do believe in, we should learn to think, and think liberally based on TRUE information from ALL sources and sides. We are to think for ourselves and adopt lateral thinking too. Who are they to think for us, program and even now reprogram us and our next generations? Who said we need it? No wonder civilizations say 21 December 2012 is the end of the world, so much the better if it ends there than to put up with all these and potentially facing the same fate as those more than honourably mentioned in your article “The Three Blind Mice”. I’d rather die than face what is as definite as what will dawn on the horizon in the days to come.

    [To be cont'd]

    Christine

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  18. As for your discussion of the book “The China Model”, what do you expect other than praises for PRC’s achievements? Even if they present a critique like Walter Benjamin’s in there I bet my life on it that it’ll all be dressed up in brainwashing terminology. With such a handbook or guideline, are they trying to brew another Cultural Revolution on our soil, on a land which (you mentioned, no offence at the cynicism) they want so much to re-integrate back to the Mainland? What are they thinking, if at all? I know we have all been (most of us anyway) spoon-fed from birth, but do they honestly think we can be so easily duped? Another thought that shot across my mind the other day as I was reading this was, if they are not trying to re-stage the Cultural Revolution “away”, they are almost reviving Nazism here!!! Or would you say apart from not committing blatant mass genocide (yet – despite the lost ones on Tianmen Square), they have long been nurturing this sentiment on any soil that their tentacles can reach? Do they really need another Cultural Revolution before they will stop? Shabby construction and corruption aside, how much more can they de-value our lives and minds and spirit? Was reading the news on the Scholarism 學民思潮 movement in recent days, especially on the hunger strike, and an uncomfortable thought is lurking at the back of my mind that a June-Fourth Massacre doesn’t seem that impossible on home soil at all.

    As for what the schools will choose by 2015, principles versus survival, what do you think honestly? Hong Kong society is renowned for being practical and materialistic, right? Brainwashing in all forms has been insidiously combing through every aspect in our lives from the non-stop propaganda alone, especially over the youngsters. Ducks are not ducks but Donald Duck plus nephews. With such a biased Beijing-centric sentiment seeping through every aspect in our lives now and a fear of offending the emperors (naked or not) up on their thrones, and a fervent crave for a treat, (whether they are the ones thrown from the table to the dogs), do you think they have a real choice? A free choice? I would highly commend the schools which hold out long enough till 2015 already.

    Three-day cultural visit blah blah blah is just over tomorrow’s horizon. Be prepared to tune into CNN or BBC first thing in the morning to hear Hong Kong’s kids in Beijing singing the national anthem and propaganda songs that pierce the clouds.

    Irrespective of Oscar Wilde’s comments, totally agree with you that patriotism has a very different meaning in the Mainland. They won’t tolerate anything other than total allegiance to the Party, not even allegiance / loyalty to the general populace. Have we ever managed to hold them accountable for anything in a transparent way (not since I was born as far as I can recall, or maybe I am too young still, hahaha).

    As I mentioned to you earlier, the book I most want to read now is “The China Model”. I want to know exactly how they are adulterating the minds of our fresh generations in Hong Kong. And you know that once someone instill something into you at an impressionable age, it will never go away.

    Let not our future turn into the Ballad of Black Jails 黑监獄…….

    I feel its shadow cast over me already…

    Christine

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  19. 我们就是在红旗下长大的。。。长大后就面临着一个痛苦而愉悦的“去红化”。内地还有一首歌,叫做“红旗下的蛋”

    GZX

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  20. Christine,

    The saga has died down significantly since I wrote the article. The Diaoyu disputes have taken over the paper's front page. I hope Scholarism continues to put pressure on the government to withdraw the teaching guidelines. The public has a short attention span here.

    Jason

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  21. Jason,

    Sharp observation indeed, I noticed that as well. Not sure whether it is because the people are getting tired of the fight to scrap the system with no results though some are advertising it is "名存实亡" and people are blinded into believing that or consoling themselves it really is the case or what. Or they are just pre-occupied with their daily business and the Diaoyu gang happened to yell louder and broadcast their issue as an "international" one. I would be hugely interested to see what the International Court would adjudicate on, though no side has the guts to take it there.

    I've mentioned on your wall already, I was furious over the Diaoyu disputes too, another case of twisted history by the Japanese. But at least the fight for the Diaoyu Islands show (at least on the surface) we care about our national identity and history and territory and that is national (and history) education in action. We just don't need propaganda about how bright the red flag is billowing in our brains.

    I don't know how much Scholarism can take it further, but at least I hope public pressure will force them to scrap the course or at least not make it a red one. Whenever I thought of "The China Model" I thought of the cultural revolutionary youngsters holding the "毛语录" close to their hearts. Mortifying.


    Christine

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