Mis-education of Hong Kong
With schools set to reopen in Hong Kong later this month, plans for an educational overhaul are on the agenda.
But these changes have nothing to do with half-day classes, sitting kids in single rows or other measures being rolled out to limit the spread of Covid-19.
Rather, matters of what's being taught, and how it's being taught, have increasingly put Beijing and its loyalists on edge.
In a recent interview with the government-owned Ta Kung Pao newspaper, Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam attacked the country's educational system, likening it to "a chicken coop without a roof" that had fuelled pro-democracy protests.
Pushing for an overhaul of the system, Ms Lam said the Education Bureau would have to serve as a "gatekeeper" to keep young people from being "poisoned" with "false and biased" information.
"In terms of handling the subject of liberal studies in the future, we will definitely make things clear to the public within this year," she said.
The prickly issue of educating Hong Kongers was earlier raised by Shen Chunyao, director of the Hong Kong, Macau and Basic Law Commission, after a four-day Chinese Communist Party meeting in November.
With large-scale and often violent protests by pro-democracy movement rocking Hong Kong for months, Mr Chen viewed a ramp-up in patriotic education as a means of quelling public discontent.
"We should educate Hong Kong and Macau society, especially public officials and teenagers, about the constitution, and strengthen the national consciousness and patriotism of Hong Kong and Macau compatriots through the education of history and Chinese culture," he said.
So what exactly is wrong with Hong Kong's educational system, or liberal studies for that matter? In global studies measuring cognitive skills and educational attainment, Hong Kong's educational system has regularly featured among the world's best.
As for liberal studies, one exponent of this interdisciplinary field is the use of inquiry-based learning, which stresses the student's role in the learning process. Rather than just being dictated to by teachers or otherwise learning by rote, students are encouraged to ask questions and broaden their understanding of the subject matter at hand. This, in turn, develops critical thinking.
Therein lies the problem.
Education has long been linked to increased public backing for democracy, with increased tolerance correlated to an understanding that the rights of the opposition matter and minorities should be protected. What's more, education facilitates a development of political knowledge, promoting an understanding of one's political interests and that of one's community.
As noted by academic Ming Sing in her paper, "Explaining mass support for democracy in Hong Kong," "a rising trend for the pre-handover government during British rule to allow the public a greater say in shaping public policies" has had a lasting effect.
Civil liberties, which by definition ask that citizens only be subject to laws which are established for the good of the community, are also significant to Hong Kongers.
And as a result of the one-country, two-systems compromise following the British handover, which granted Hong Kong a great deal of latitude in managing its own affairs, a political culture has developed in which people can formulate their own interests and organise around them.
In short, Hong Kongers have a long culture of thinking for themselves, advocating for their own interests and embracing only those laws which are for the good of the community. Which is to say, their political culture is antithetical to the interests of Beijing.
On the mainland, generations have been taught to obey or suffer the consequences. In exchange, economic growth is promised. This model has worked among people trained to accept authoritarian rule, facilitated by a lack of free press, draconian suppression methods and the sort of "patriotic education" of which Mr Shen spoke.
But the argument of "it pays to obey and unconditionally love the motherland" has fallen on deaf ears in Hong Kong.
Beijing for its part has yet to come up with a better one. And when it's not possible to effectively change minds, authoritarians have no recourse other than changing thinkers. That starts with dismantling a functioning educational system.
In healthy societies, governments reflect people's needs and interests. In unhealthy ones, people are bent and broken to fit the needs of the government.
Beijing would be wise to recognise that no government has ever been forced to send tanks out into the streets because people were demanding less say in their affairs. There isn't enough patriotic education in the world to change that fact.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
Email : firstname.lastname@example.org