Hong Kong's Catholic diocese has refused to allow the use of a "patriotic education" textbook in dozens of primary schools under its jurisdiction following fears that the book will herald a new era of propaganda-style education backed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
The Catholic diocese has joined a number of religious and charitable educational trusts in rejecting the textbook, meaning that around one third of Hong Kong's 500 primary schools won't teach it, at least in its initial year.
"The diocese believes that the teaching of citizenship in schools should be well-rounded and rational, and unbiased in its content," Chan Nai-kwok, head of the diocese educational affairs office, told a news conference on Thursday.
"It should encourage students to think critically."
The book, titled "The China Model," which portrays the Communist Party as "progressive, altruistic and united," has re-ignited debate over Beijing-backed propaganda-style education in Hong Kong.
But Chan said the diocese wasn't against patriotism in itself. "We want our students to have a feeling for Hong Kong, to love Hong Kong, but also to love their country, to feel Chinese, and to have an international outlook," he said.
Chan's colleague and former Catholic primary school principal Yip Sing-piu said the religious curriculum at Hong Kong's Catholic schools already had elements of citizenship built into it.
"We don't want to repeat material," he said.
September roll out
Hong Kong's National Education Service Center will roll out The China Model textbook in primary schools across the territory from September.
The move sparked protests and public concern voiced by teachers at the weekend over possible political "brainwashing" in the formerly freewheeling territory.
A spokesman for the education department said officials would work with nongovernment schools over the next year to ensure their curricula meet government requirements for citizenship education.
"The main opposition we have had has been to the content [of the book]," spokesman Mervyn Cheung told RFA's Cantonese service. "The public and the educational trusts think it isn't comprehensive enough."
"The education department will definitely take part in the editing of their curriculum materials," Cheung said.
Under the terms of its 1997 handover to China, Hong Kong has been promised the continuation of existing freedoms of expression and association for 50 years.
But journalists and commentators have pointed to a number of outspoken radio personalities who have departed from key political talk shows in the years since the handover of sovereignty to Beijing.
The territory's immigration service has also denied entry to prominent democracy activists and other individuals not approved by Beijing.
In spite of a miniconstitution promising a far higher degree of civil liberty and freedom than is currently enjoyed by Chinese in the mainland, "patriotic education" will be mandatory in all Hong Kong primary and middle schools by 2015.
Journalists say that the Chinese Communist Party has redoubled its ideological work efforts in the territory following mass demonstrations on July 1, 2003 against proposed anti-subversion legislation, which the government later abandoned.
Joseph Cheng, political science professor at Hong Kong's City University, said he fears that Hong Kong's liberal values could be eroded if this form of education spreads in the territory's schools.
"It’s all about the good sides of China and it lacks critical discussions [on issues]," Cheng Yu-shek was quoted as saying by Reuters. "I’m worried that this kind of national education will slowly and completely erode the values of Hong Kong people."
Recent polls carried out by University of Hong Kong have shown that anti-Beijing feeling among the Hong Kong population is running at record levels, while the number of the territory's citizens who identify themselves as "Chinese citizens" is at its lowest level in 13 years.
Meanwhile, an employee at a primary school in Hong Kong's Tsuen Wan district that ran a "pioneers" style movement for patriotic primary school students in the territory, who wore yellow neckties instead of the socialist red ties of their mainland Chinese counterparts, said the school had discontinued the scheme.
Speaking after a number of teachers raised concerns about such schemes on the popular talk show "City Forum," the employee declined to comment on the movement, but added: "All I know is that it is no longer in place and hasn't been for a while."
Calls to the office of Yu Qihua, deputy chairwoman of the Hong Kong branch of the National Pioneers, went unanswered during office hours on Thursday.
Meanwhile, local media reports said that Chinese rights websites were apparently inaccessible in government buildings in Hong Kong's Central business district.
The unconfirmed reports came soon after a survey found that most Hong Kong journalists believe that the free flow of information to the media is increasingly being hindered by government officials.
Hong Kong saw its tradition of press freedom eroded during the tenure of outgoing chief executive Donald Tsang, according to the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), which cited 92 percent of respondents to a recent poll.
Reported by Lin Jing and Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.