HONG KONG—Children as young as six in Hong Kong will be subjected to lessons on national security as China seeks greater control over the minds of the city’s youth, which it blamed for fueling antigovernment protests in the city.
City education officials put schools on the front line of Beijing’s push to quell opposition with a directive issued late Thursday that mandates patriotic education in kindergartens, followed by lessons starting at elementary level to teach children to adhere to a sweeping National Security Law imposed on the city last year.
The moves are the latest in a series of changes to the city’s British-style education system, a legacy of colonial rule that ended in 1997. Textbooks are being rewritten to be more patriotic to China, and some images likely to antagonize Beijing are being removed, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal.
Education is identified in the security law as a key area where greater government oversight is needed—along with the media and the internet. State media ascribed considerable blame for 2019’s social unrest to the city’s liberal school system and teachers. Thousands of students were arrested during monthslong protests, while many more formed human chains and chanted protest slogans in school yards.
China’s push to bring up future generations as dutiful citizens, however, is stoking concern among many teachers, students and parents, some of whom say it undermines long-cherished principles of critical thinking and uncensored debate. Opposition groups say the clampdown is part of Beijing’s broader effort to stifle dissent in the city that has seen dozens of democratic politicians arrested and street protests stamped out.
Education officials said Friday that the latest mandates are necessary to instill a sense of national pride in children through the teaching of history, culture and moral education. The directive says students must learn that in terms of national security “there is no room for debate or compromise,” and teachers should “cultivate students’ sense of responsibility to safeguard national security.”
It is “absolutely not too early” to teach students about national security, said Hong Kong’s secretary for education, Kevin Yeung, at a news briefing Friday. “They can start to learn more about the concepts of national security, and then they know more about the details of the law as they grow up,” he said.
Under the directive, schools should take note or report on students participating or suspected of participating in illegal acts such as protests or singing songs associated with the pro-democracy or independence movement.
“Their ultimate goal is that Hong Kong’s education system will eventually lose its own characteristics and be integrated into the mainland’s system,” said Chiang Man-ching, a former teacher who is now an elected district councilor. Critical thinking, a core component in the city’s education, will be undermined, he added.
Education officials had already begun training sessions for teachers so they can bring up students with what they term proper values and attitudes. Zoom classes on the subject were oversubscribed as schools rushed to ensure their teachers are trained.
Resources provided to teachers by the education bureau include a role-play script titled “Who stole the National Flag?” It features a patriotic character saying: “Yes! I love the motherland. I love to collect or buy things with the national flag on it.” Another character—named “Destroyer”—stomps on the flag and has no friends.
The new rules apply to the city’s public schools, though international schools are expected to make sure their students, regardless of ethnicity and nationality, acquire “a correct and objective understanding” of the concept of national security and the law.
Mark Steed, the principal of Kellett international school, said that after the security law was passed, the school’s history teachers had opted to substitute classes that they had previously taught on Chinese history with a course on Russia and the Cold War.
“Teachers need to feel comfortable with what they’re doing,” Mr. Steed said. “It’s more out of prudence.”
Many teachers are self-censoring out of fear they will be reported. In September, the department banned an elementary schoolteacher permanently from the profession after he asked students to discuss freedom of speech and the Hong Kong independence movement, a concept made illegal by the security law.
“All of us just want to avoid—as much as possible—anything negative about China,” said Tin Fong-chak, vice president of Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union and a liberal studies teacher.
Another target of the education revamp is liberal studies, a mandatory subject designed to foster critical thinking among students. The curriculum is being overhauled and renamed (suggestions floated to schools by officials so far include calling it “Citizen and Country” or “National Citizen and Society”).
The education bureau is halving the number of hours dedicated to the subject and currently consulting on further changes including putting a heavier focus on Chinese culture and the country’s development.
“This is a step backward for the quality of Hong Kong’s education,” former pro-democracy lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen said of the proposals.
Pro-Beijing politicians have frequently said that liberal studies politicizes young people, and a number of changes were made to textbooks being studied this academic year, which began in September.
Among textbook images that have been deleted is a cartoon showing “Tank Man,” an iconic image of a protester standing in front of a tank as China’s military crushed student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Also gone are cartoons of a U.S. Navy ship sounding a warning to a Chinese counterpart in the South China Sea, and of protesters holding signs that say “liberate our community.”
Inculcating patriotism, central to the Communist Party’s playbook in China, is being rolled out in Hong Kong. Since June, schools must display the Chinese flag and have its anthem sung on national holidays.
Flag raising wasn’t common in Hong Kong in the past, “so other people might think that it’s quite strange,” said Hui Chun-lung, principal of HKFEW Wong Cho Bau Secondary School, which had voluntarily adopted the practice when it was founded in 2003. The ceremony reinforces the national identity of students, he said.
Schools and teachers are on the hook for behavior of students or staff under the new directive, though many have already taken steps to keep children in line. One secondary-school pupil was suspended for a week after using a profile picture that contained a popular protest slogan—“Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times”—during a Zoom class. The school’s principal, in a letter to parents that referenced the incident, wrote: “love well, whip well.”
A high-school senior and supporter for the protest movement, Pak-ho, who last year disseminated pro-democracy messages online and in the streets, is worried that the changes would put Hong Kong students at a competitive disadvantage due to what he called brainwashing.
“ ‘Loving your country and party’—it should come from the heart,’” he said. “Students should not be forced to love.”
Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8