Hong Kong’s government has backed down on a plan to force children to take Chinese patriotism classes, after thousands took to the streets in protest ahead of legislative polls.
The government said on Saturday that schools did not have to adopt a China-backed curriculum from 2015, after parents, teachers and students had staged a week-long protest against the education proposal, claiming the curriculum amounts to propaganda that glosses over the darker aspects of Chinese rule.
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Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s embattled new leader, called the move on the education plan a “major policy amendment,” saying he had heard and understood the public’s criticism.
The government noted the scheme had not been withdrawn and that schools could introduce it as they saw fit.
“We don’t want the recent controversy to affect the operations of schools, nor do we want to see the harmony of the education environment to be affected [by the scheme],” Leung said.
“The schools are given the authority to decide when and how they would like to introduce the moral and national education.”
Protest organisers said 120,000 demonstrators had rallied outside the government headquarters late on Friday, but police put the number at 36,000.
The protests, which continued into Saturday, began in July when tens of thousands demonstrated against what they said was a Bejing-imposed policy to brainwash children with Communist Party propaganda.
Wearing black and chanting slogans, the demonstrators have become a daily feature at the executive building and a major headache for the pro-Beijing government leading up to elections on Sunday for the Legislative Assembly.
Some protesters staged hunger strikes, and students had erected a replica of the democracy statue that symbolised the student-led 1989 Tiananmen protests in mainland China.
‘Inclusive and liberal’
Leung, the city’s Beijing-backed leader, had rejected demands to meet the students, saying he would not negotiate the withdrawal of the policy he inherited from the previous government in July.
But on Saturday, in a dramatic about face on the eve of the election, he held a press conference to say the mandatory aspect of the policy had been scrapped.
He also promised to re-examine the entire curriculum in the light of the public outcry.
The government, formed after a small group of largely pro-Beijing elites appointed Leung earlier this year, had insisted the subject was important to foster a sense of national belonging and identity.
Government-funded course material extolled the benefits of one-party rule, equated multi-party democracy to chaos, and glossed over events like the bloody Tiananmen crackdown and the mass starvation of Mao’s regime.
The administration now appears to have caved in to public opposition amid rising anti-Beijing sentiment in the semi-autonomous southern city, which enjoys a degree of democracy and freedom not allowed in mainland China.
Lawmaker Anna Wu, who chairs a government committee studying the policy, said the authorities decided on a course of action that was “the most inclusive and most liberal”.
“It is also very consistent with academic freedom and therefore I support this move,” she said.
The new 70-seat legislature to be elected on Sunday will pave the way for full suffrage, which Beijing has promised in 2017 for Leung’s job of chief executive and by 2020 for the parliament.
Pro-democracy parties were using the education furore to galvanise their supporters, hoping to boost their representation in parliament and maintain a veto over constitutional amendments.