Convener of the student group "Scholarism" Joshua Wong, center, accompanied with other members, speaks to tens of thousands of protesters outside government headquarters in Hong Kong, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
On September 30, around 500 Hong Kong students gathered in front of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s home, donning t-shirts emblazoned "Why CY Cannot Ask Why?" The young activists had one demand: the complete withdrawal of a national education curriculum that, for them, amounts to "brainwashing" dreamed up by the highest functionaries in Beijing.
Scholarism, a student activist group formed last year, led the protest on Leung’s lawn, the latest action in a yearlong movement against the government’s "Moral and National Education" plan.
High school students, led by a 15-year-old named Joshua Wong, founded Scholarism, knowing they had the most to lose under the Beijing-backed education plan. While the movement belongs in the recent zeitgeist of student dissent, Scholarism’s struggle differs from campus protests across the world against tuition hikes, in that its members aren’t fighting for the affordability, but the very integrity, of their education.
"It shouldn’t be the purpose of education to have students love or praise their country," Heidi Ma, a Scholarism activist, said in a phone interview.
"Moral and National Education" teaches a hyper-favorable view of Chinese communism and redacts painful events from the historical curriculum—including the entirety of the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square Massacre. Page 16 of the "China Model Teaching Manual," already implicated by name, reveals the one-sided, flag-waving propaganda that Beijing wants to drill into children’s heads:
Unlike regime changes of Western democratic countries, the ruling group of China mainly serves the country and people. The closeness of ruling philosophies and orientations inside the ruling group ensures the continuity of the regime and stability of the society.
But Scholarism proves that Hong Kong’s youth are not as impressionable as curriculum-designers hoped. Besides fighting MNE, the group also showed solidarity in demonstrations memorializing the victims of Tianamen Square on its anniversary. The action suggests that democracy, not just honest education, is at the core of what Scholarism stands for.
The widespread resonance of the movement—reaching parents, teachers, columnists and local celebrities—is a testament to the power of Scholarism’s teenage core. Wong and crew tapped the collective wariness of Beijing’s creeping influence in Hong Kong affairs. And it exploded.
A month ago, a coalition led by Scholarism, including the Parents Concern Group and Professional Teachers’ Union, scored a victory after a massive display of defiance. Inspired by the Occupy movement, the group rallied tens of thousands of supporters to camp in Hong Kong’s government square for 10 days, eventually forcing Leung to retreat on mandatory implementation of the controversial curriculum.
But for Scholarism, there’s still work to be done. Leung merely postponed a decision on MNE till 2015, and the government is still issuing the curriculum to schools, which at the moment, is for them to decide on whether to implement or not.
Ma says Scholarism doesn’t have any actions planned for the near future, as all of its members returned to their school-year routines. Some will be subjected to MNE, but given these students’ proven freethinking, it doesn’t seem like the brainwashing will work.