South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Philip Yeung believes our young agitators would not have got so far if they had been properly taught modern Chinese history
This school term, teachers have been handed a radioactive subject: talk of independence. Caught in a double bind, they are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. The choice is between being accused of condoning illegal behaviour or being condemned for suppressing freedom of speech.
I could have said “I told you so” when “independence” talk reared its ugly head. The seed was planted by the Education Bureau when it marginalised the teaching of history, and replaced it with the ill-conceived liberal studies, now mandatory. This, without doubt, is its single most politically disastrous crackpot reform idea.
For all the hype about the new subject, there has not been an iota of good that has come out of its introduction. In supposedly training students to think critically, we have let loose a monster that is now out of control, with students questioning everything without sufficient knowledge or context.
In 2010, some 32 per cent of students signed up for history under the old Certificate of Education exams. Five years later, the number had plummeted to about 10 per cent of all enrolled students under the new Diploma of Secondary Education system. It is a safe bet that the students agitating for independence are among those who have deserted history.
How can you intelligently discuss Hong Kong’s independence from China without knowledge of its past? How many of the independence-spouting activists know about the opium wars, the Nanking massacre, China’s world-changing open-door policy or its shattering Cultural Revolution? If they did, their jaws would have dropped at how far China has come.
Inexplicably, education policymakers also fooled around with forcing national education on the students, only to beat a retreat when it was massively rejected as “brainwashing”. This set a bad precedent, whetting student appetite for more confrontations with the government. How, then, do we crack this nut? First, make history a compulsory subject. Second, before history returns to its rightful place, if students wish to discuss independence, they should do so only on one condition: that they first demonstrate a knowledge of modern Chinese history. Third, history teaching must be revitalised. The subject has often reduced to the superficial remembering of dates or names. Teachers need to relearn the art of teaching this subject.
This is crunch time. Will our officials have the courage to correct their blunder? By keeping our students historically illiterate, they are sowing the seeds of chaos.
Philip Yeung is a former speech-writer to the president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.