Escalating student protests against plans to introduce mandatory "patriotic education" in Hong Kong schools have forced its chief executive to abandon an overseas trip ahead of key legislative elections this weekend, sparking dire warnings to students from China's tightly controlled official media.
Students have been boycotting classes and camping outside the offices of Hong Kong's Special Administrative Region government in recent days, continuing a hunger strike begun ahead of mass rallies last weekend, in protest at the plans to educate Hong Kong schoolchildren into loyalty to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
In an unusually threatening commentary on Hong Kong affairs, China's Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the Party, lashed out at the student-led protest, in what appeared to be a veiled reference to the 1989 military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement.
"These young boys and girls, without a glimmer of understanding of the politics of the adult world, are expected to become a political force that could confront the government," the paper said in an opinion article signed "Chen Chenchen."
"This is both immoral and risky ... History has already shown the tragedies that strike societies if their students focus on striking, protesting or even rushing to the front line of political confrontation," the paper said, blaming the movement on political manipulation by pro-democractic politicians.
But local media reports said chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who was narrowly selected for the job this year by a pro-Beijing committee, had underestimated the strength of opposition to the plans, which could fuel support for pro-democratic parties in Sunday's legislative elections.
Leung's trip would have been his first official overseas trip since he was sworn in on July 1, and would have included a meeting with President Hu Jintao.
Delays ruled out
The Hong Kong government has said it is determined to go ahead with plans to roll out "patriotic" education about China in primary schools this year, following mass protests by parents, teachers and pupils concerned over possible political "brainwashing" in the formerly freewheeling territory.
Officials have offered consultations with parents, but have ruled out any delays to the program, under which all Hong Kong primary and secondary school pupils will receive compulsory "national education" classes by 2016.
A spokeswoman for the Civil Alliance Against National Education said opposition to the program is escalating, and called for negotiations with the government.
"The public has made its stance very clear already," Bobo Yip Po-lam told reporters on Wednesday. "It is impossible for Leung not to know how things stand."
She called on Leung to communicate with the group without any preconditions, as students maintained a relay hunger strike outside his administration's offices ahead of Sunday's elections, which will produce a legislature that decides the direction and pace of democratic reform in the former British colony.
Meanwhile, Lee Sing-hong, secretary-general of the technical college students' union Hok Luen said the group's 10 member colleges had agreed to boycott classes at the beginning of the academic year this week.
"We have reached a consensus ... that the technical college students should boycott class first, because it's easier to organize," Lee said, suggesting that the movement might spread to school-age children and parents.
"It would be hard to organize a successful boycott of classes in primary and secondary schools, because this will need time to prepare for. It's very hard to do spontaneously," he said.
He said he hoped that Hong Kong parents concerned about the mandatory national education plans would follow the college students' lead and organize a boycott of classes in the territory's primary and secondary schools.
The "national education" curriculum would consist of 50 hours of lessons a year focusing on "building national harmony, identity and unity among individuals".
But parents, teachers and students alike fear that events like the bloody Tiananmen crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1989 and the mass starvation and extrajudicial killings of Mao's Cultural Revolution will be whitewashed for the younger generation.
The student protest seems to be winning broad popular support, according to Wong Hung, social work professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"I think the reason that more and more people are joining this movement is that they are moved by the students, because they can see that they are doggedly holding onto their principles," Wong said.
"They have never let this drop, and gradually, more and more people are coming to feel moved enough to join in."
A major problem
He said the issue was becoming a major problem for Leung's administration.
"A lot of people are feeling more and more disappointed in the government's response ... because people were hoping for some change with the new administration," he added. "All of that sense of injustice is now being laid at their door."
In July, Hong Kong's Catholic diocese refused to allow the use of one of the program's prescribed textbooks in dozens of primary schools under its jurisdiction following fears that the book will herald a new era of propaganda-style education.
The diocese 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 book, titled The China Model, portrays the Communist Party as "progressive, altruistic and united," and parents and teachers alike fear it will undermine the next generation's critical thinking skills, as well as their understanding of core values like justice and human rights.
The results of Sunday's legislative poll could have a direct impact on whether Hong Kong enjoys full universal suffrage by 2020, as promised by Beijing, or whether the territory's pro-Beijing political elite will succeed in diluting the proposals and retaining its stranglehold on the city's political life.
Pro-democracy parties warn that China has no intention of easing its grip on the regional financial hub, and are suspicious about what form of "universal suffrage" Leung's administration will propose.
If the democratic camp can muster half of the 70 available seats, they will likely be able to galvanize enough support to enable universal suffrage to take place, political analysts say.
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 political analysts 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.
A poll carried out by the Hong Kong Transition Project showed that levels of dissatisfaction among Hong Kong residents climbed to 48 percent in August, according to a survey of 1,309 people, the highest level since the 51 percent peak recorded in July 2004, when Hong Kong was recovering from the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic.
Reported by Lin Jing and Pan Jiaqing for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.