Chinese officials have hit out at a lack of patriotism in Hong Kong's education system as a major factor behind the city's 79-day Occupy Central pro-democracy movement, in a move that is likely to reignite a heated debate over Beijing's "patriotic education" proposals for schoolchildren in the former British colony.
Former diplomat and government adviser Chen Zuo'er called on Thursday for Hong Kong's education secretary to be subject to scrutiny from the central government at all times, in a bid to prevent "noxious weeds" from coming through the system.
Chen, who led the Chinese negotiating team ahead of the 1997 handover to Beijing, warned that the secretary for education is "under the supervision of the central government and Hong Kong society at all times," and has sworn to uphold the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
Chen lamented a lack of nationalistic feeling among the semiautonomous territory's young people, blaming the city's school curriculum for failing to take into account issues of "national security and sovereignty."
"Why was the education sector in such a mess during Occupy Central?" Chen asked a youth forum in Beijing.
"How did these young men, who were just toddlers at the handover, turn into those people on the front line brandishing the UK national flag and storming into our military camps and government?"
"It is clear that there have been problems all along with education in Hong Kong," Chen said. "Many people have a distinct lack of national democratic and civic awareness, life goals, and knowledge in geography, history, and culture," he said.
He called on Hong Kong officials to eradicate "noxious weeds" from the education sector, and to allow "green shoots" to flourish.
The Occupy Central movement has campaigned for Beijing to withdraw its electoral reform plan, which will give the city's five million voters a vote each in the election, but will restrict candidates to just two or three approved by a pro-Beijing committee.
But Beijing has said any reforms must stick to its Aug. 31 decree, and has slammed international support for the Umbrella Movement, saying that the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on the handover arrangements is "void" and that China answers to no one in exercising sovereignty over Hong Kong.
Hong Kong student groups played a leading role in the Umbrella Movement, which camped out on major roads and intersections amid an ongoing civil disobedience campaign for more than two months beginning on Sept. 28.
In 2013, they came out in force to protest plans to include "patriotic education" and Beijing-approved textbooks in Hong Kong classrooms. The plans have since been shelved.
Beijing is watching
Chan Sik Chee, convenor of the National Education Concern group, said Chen's comments appear to be a warning to education secretary Eddie Ng.
"It's as if he wants to put pressure on by saying 'the central government is watching you,'" she said. "This is going to make parents in Hong Kong very worried indeed."
"Are they saying that because Occupy Central happened, not enough has been done, and that they are going to push this curriculum, or reform it, to change the way people think?"
"That would be unwise, because young people now are even more independent-minded now that they were [before Occupy Central]," she said.
As if to prove her point, Joshua Wong, who heads the academic activist group Scholarism, waylaid Hong Kong's second-in-command Carrie Lam in the corridors of a radio station, criticizing the government's recent summing up of public opinion following the Occupy movement.
"I think you might want to take a look at these assessment criteria for high school students with regard to your public opinion summary," Wong told Lam, proffering a document telling teachers how to mark student assignments in liberal studies disciplines.
"Why would you say in your report that there is a consensus in Hong Kong that people want to proceed with universal suffrage under the framework of the Aug. 31 decision from the National People's Congress (NPC)?"
Lam defended the government's statement, but took the document.
End to academic freedom
Chinese University of Hong Kong sociology professor Chan Kin-man, one of the original three founders of the Occupy movement, said that if Chan's comments are heeded, it could mean the end of academic and other freedoms in the territory.
"People's fight for democracy does not mean they do not love the country," he told Hong Kong's English-language South China Morning Post newspaper.
Chen's comments came after Beijing University law professor Rao Geping, who advises the ruling Chinese Communist Party on Hong Kong affairs, said the city's government should try once again to introduce a system of "national education" into Hong Kong schools.
"Hong Kong hasn't done an ideal job of educating its youth about how to adapt to its status under 'one country, two systems'," Rao told a Hong Kong and Macau studies forum in Beijing on Wednesday, in a reference to the formula under which Hong Kong was handed back to China amid promises of "a high degree of autonomy."
He said the city's young people should be taught about "decolonisation," as its schools have inherited some issues from British colonial rule.
Hong Kong lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen, who represents the education sector in the Legislative Council (LegCo) and heads a major teachers' union, said Chen has no understanding of young people in Hong Kong, however.
"He sees the problem as being that young people aren't passively obedient, but I think the real conflict lies elsewhere, around a political system that Hong Kong people really want to see implemented," Ip said, in a reference to Occupy Central's campaign for public nomination of election candidates in the 2017 poll for chief executive.
"He really doesn't understand the attitudes of young people in Hong Kong," he said.
Reported by Dai Weisen for RFA’s Cantonese Service and Qiao Long for Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.