Amid mounting unrest in Hong Kong, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has unveiled plans for a new program of "patriotic education" in a bid to achieve ideological "unity," including in the former colonial territories of Hong Kong and Macau.
In a Nov. 12 document, the party's Central Committee outlined guidelines to boost patriotism through schools, universities, the party's United Front Work Department, and among "people from all walks of life," including the populations of Hong Kong and Macau.
The document calls for a program of ideological indoctrination that begins in the cradle and specifically focuses on young people.
"We must make full use of classroom teaching, and cultivate students' patriotic feelings so as to train the next generation to build and inherit socialism," it said.
The document was published after Shen Chunyao, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office under China's cabinet, the State Council, called for the education of Hong Kong's seven million residents to be more "patriotic."
China has been at pains to frame the five-month-old anti-extradition and pro-democracy movement as "separatist," saying that protesters want independence for the city, although the majority say they are fighting to prevent the loss of their existing freedoms.
Shen said on Nov. 1 that Beijing wants "patriots to form the main body" of those selected to govern both Hong Kong and Macau, and that there are plans afoot to "perfect" the system for selecting the chief executive and officials.
Candidates turned away
Officials in Hong Kong have already begun turning away would-be election candidates who call for Hong Kong to be granted the "high degree of autonomy" promised in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international treaty governing the 1997 handover of the city to Chinese rule.
"We must ... guide people including compatriots in Hong Kong and Macau Special Administrative Regions and Taiwan compatriots and overseas Chinese to enhance recognition of [China as] their country, and consciously safeguard national and ethnic unity," the State Council communique said.
It said patriotic content should be integrated into textbooks and teaching materials at all levels of education, while organizations should develop appealing social media content and music, art, calligraphy, dance, and drama that "reflect the requirements of patriotic education."
It also called for the "spirit of patriotism" to be written into laws, regulations, and policies, including civil and industry norms.
"Educational material must also resolutely safeguard Xi Jinping's core position and the party's authority, and promote Xi Jinping Thoughts in companies, the countryside, institutions, campuses, communities, military camps, and online," it said.
Guo Yuhua, a professor of sociology at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University, said the concept was "ridiculous."
"The ruling party and government should both aim to protect the fundamental interests and well-being of the people, and provide public services," Guo said. "If it admits this [as an aim], then how can it require the people it serves, and whom it should protect, to love it?"
Guo said patriotism can't be taught.
"Love shouldn't be about parroting set phrases. It should come from the heart, not from external sources," she said.
"Propaganda is not education. Propaganda is an indoctrination, a kind of coercion, forcing you to believe in a particular doctrine or concept," she said.
"If you don't believe in it, measures will be taken to compel you to believe in it, and you will be re-educated or come under a lot of pressure," Guo said.
She said she believes the new policy document was issued with Hong Kong and Macau in mind.
"I think there is a connection; that's pretty clear," Guo said. "But I don't think it'll achieve anything, because trying to impose coercive measures under high pressure like this will be counterproductive."
In Washington, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) said it was concerned at plans in Beijing to exercise more control over Hong Kong's political life.
"Equally concerning is #Beijing’s announced plans to exercise more control over #HongKong politics, judiciary & educational system & to accelerate efforts to pass national security legislation that would further curtail free speech and civil liberties," the CECC said via its official account on Twitter, in a reference to planned anti-sedition and subversion legislation under Article 23 of Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
"Beijing should also consider the likely costs of any additional measures to undermine #HongKong’s autonomy—more political disruption, curtailed access to the global financial system, & new sanctions by the US and the international community," it said.
Earlier proposals shelved
Proposals for patriotic education in Hong Kong's schools were shelved in 2012 after thousands of protesters camped outside government headquarters for several weeks, dressed in black and chanting for the withdrawal from the curriculum of what they called "brainwashing" propaganda from the Communist Party.
Student activist Joshua Wong and his Scholarism group, which spearheaded the "anti-brainwashing" campaign against Beijing's call for "moral and national education," went on to play a key role in the Occupy Central democracy movement two years later.
On Oct. 29, officials in Hong Kong barred Wong from running in forthcoming district elections, in a move that Wong slammed as "politically driven."
He said the decision was based on a subjective interpretation of his intention to uphold the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
Agnes Chow, also a veteran of the Scholarism movement, was debarred by election officials from standing in the 2018 Hong Kong Island by-election, for advocating self-determination for the city, in a move that was widely condemned as a threat to the city's political life.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.