Young protesters undergo military training, patriotic education in Hong Kong prisons

Hundreds of young people are forced to learn Chinese-style marching, patriotic history and 'correct values.'

Police officers detain demonstrators during a protest in Hong Kong, China, June 10, 2019. Hundreds of people under 18 had been prosecuted in connection with the 2019 protests and youths judged to hold 'extreme ideological views' have been sent for 're-education,' a Hong Kong official says. Reuters

Authorities in Hong Kong have prosecuted hundreds of minors for taking part in the 2019 protest movement, with many sent for "re-education" and military-style bootcamp training, sparking fears that "re-education" facilities used on incarcerated Uyghurs in Xinjiang could also happen in Hong Kong.

Three years after the protest movement -- which began as a mass movement against extradition to mainland China and broadened to include demands for fully democratic elections and greater official accountability -- tens of thousands of people have been arrested, more than 1,000 of whom were minors, according to the latest government figures ending Aug. 31, 2022.

Security chief Chris Tang told lawmakers that 517 people under the age of 18 had been prosecuted in connection with the 2019 protests by that date, adding that youths judged to hold "extreme ideological views" had been sent for "re-education."

"At present, all young persons in custody are required to receive Chinese-style marching training," Tang told the Legislative Council on Oct. 26.

"The Correctional Services Department emphasizes strict discipline training for young persons in custody, hoping to make them understand the importance of discipline and abiding by the law," he said.

"Juvenile inmates trained under the Rehabilitation Centres Ordinance are ... subjected to strict disciplinary training and hard physical training, to enable them to understand the cost of crime, and to reflect on their own misdeeds," he said.

Inmates are also required to undergo patriotic education and activities to "enhance their national identity, to instill the correct values ... and to help them rediscover meaning in life," Tang said.

They also take classes in "moral and civic education" and "national security law education," programs that have been imposed on children and university students across Hong Kong since the National Security Law sparked a citywide crackdown on public dissent and political opposition from July 2020.

"The Correctional Services Department will assign a dedicated case manager to assess these persons in custody to identify the special rehabilitation needs of each person in custody, and match each person in custody according to the three principles of the above-mentioned rehabilitation program," Tang said.

Nationalistic education program

A nationalistic program of moral, civic and national education is replacing Liberal Studies in Hong Kong's primary and secondary schools, as well as in higher education, with schools required to promote the National Security Law to staff and students. 

The Liberal Studies critical thinking program, rolled out in Hong Kong schools in 2009, was blamed by Chinese officials and media for several mass protests in recent years, from the 2011 campaign against patriotic education by secondary school students, to the 2014 youth-led Umbrella movement, to the 2019 protests that began as a campaign against extradition to mainland China and broadened to include demands for fully democratic elections. 

In addition, some 10,000 young people in the youth branches of the police, correctional and rescue services will be targeted for a program aimed at "raising national security awareness," Tang told lawmakers, all of whom were elected under new rules in December 2021 banning pro-democracy candidates from running

U.S.-based activist Alex Chow, who chairs the Hong Kong Democracy Council, said the moves are similar to patriotic education programs and "re-education" programs imposed on more than a million incarcerated Uyghurs in Xinjiang since 2017.

"It's all about bringing that set of practices from mainland China into Hong Kong," Chow told RFA, adding that the "re-education" aspect of serving jail time is relatively new.

"Previously, political prisoners didn't have to go through that kind of brainwashing," he said. "I didn't, when I was in prison in 2017."

"[The right to hold] political ideas is a human right, and you can't force people to adopt your ideas, even if theirs are different from yours," he said.

Chow said the government is forcing young people into political rehabilitation because it has no other way to wield authority.

"It's all about showing who is in authority, that people have to do as they are told by the government," he said. "They want to correct the ideas of some people in custody."

Massive backlog of cases

Kevin Yam, former head of the Progressive Lawyers' Group, said there are currently huge delays in prosecutions due to a massive backlog of post-2019 cases, putting unnecessary pressure on people who have been arrested, but are still waiting for the authorities to make a decision on their case, or move it to trial.

"Of course this is unjust, because they will have to put so much on hold for several years, until they know what's going to happen to them," Yam told RFA. "For example, some people aren't allowed to go abroad, or others might want to find a job, but there's a case hanging over them."

"Even studying is much harder than it would have been -- the longer these delays last, the bigger the impact [on these young people]."

He called on the authorities to enact at least a partial amnesty, or to find non-criminal means of handling cases of young protesters, so they can carry on with their lives.

He said such a move would enable a sense of reconciliation between the government and the city's seven million residents, many of whom are leaving the city since the national security law took effect. 

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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