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World Hong Kong youth rebel against their very pro-China education

A pro-democracy supporter waves a British flag as protesters gather in Hong Kong on Sept. 13, 2019. The city's youth are growing increasingly critical of Chinese control.

Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

The people who taught Nancy Ho took pains to prepare her for life and work in China. Born in Hong Kong, Ms. Ho travelled to mainland China for her first of several school trips when she was 10. At home, she studied the Communist Party, its economic achievements and the role it has played in improving life in China. She learned Mandarin, the official language of mainland China. In higher grades, students from mainland China occupied more of the school seats next to her, while local leaders extolled the opportunities for the city’s youth to profit from China’s economy.

“The Hong Kong government is trying to tell us the Chinese government is good and we should accept it,” said Ms. Ho, 20.

She is of the generation that grew up after the city’s handover to China in 1997 after a century and a half of British control, knowing only Chinese rule and groomed to thrive under it.

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It’s also the generation that has staged the most tumultuous revolt against that rule, with posthandover youth making up large numbers of the black-shirted protesters whose aggressive tactics have set Hong Kong ablaze in violent clashes with police and transit authorities. This week, with local authorities proposing a ban on face masks after more than three months of unrest, demonstrators changed tack with hundreds gathering in shopping malls to sing a new protest anthem, Glory to Hong Kong.

In Beijing, authorities have pointed to failings in Hong Kong’s education system as a key explanation for the protests, in which the Chinese flag has been repeatedly defaced. “We need to ask the question: Is the national knowledge education adequate? And does it need improvement?” said Xu Luying, a spokeswoman for the Beijing-controlled Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, last week.

“This is a question that deserves high attention, and measures must be taken to address this matter.”

But Beijing’s plan to breed more loyalty to China in Hong Kong’s classrooms is long-standing – and has achieved few of its aims. Indeed, scholars have found that young people in Hong Kong with the greatest knowledge of China are also those most hostile toward Beijing. For people such as Ms. Ho, greater exposure has fostered animosity, not favour.

“We think the education the Hong Kong government is giving us is propaganda,” she said. Her views of the Communist Party and people from mainland China are deeply visceral.

“The more experiences we have with China, with the Chinese, the more we hate them,” she said. “Because we are just so different.”

It’s an attitude that hardened as protests gripped Hong Kong this summer and sharpened a conflict with Beijing, which many demonstrators see as choking the liberties it has promised to uphold.

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“Before this protest, young people seemed to ’accept’ China more,” said Samson Yuen, a scholar at Lingnan University who has surveyed the protesters. He cited an appetite for Chinese cultural products such as the TikTok short video service. But, he said, “I don’t think, given what has happened over the past few months, Beijing can easily gain their hearts and minds again.”

The rejection of Beijing has defied concerted government efforts to engineer acceptance and participation. Numerous programs have sought to ease integration into the mainland.

The government of Hong Kong sponsors volunteer exchanges for thousands of young people each year “to enhance Hong Kong young people’s understanding of the Mainland and strengthen their sense of national identity.” It offers matching funds to young people setting up businesses that straddle Hong Kong and the mainland, while Beijing has eased admissions to mainland universities for students from Hong Kong. More than 570 Hong Kong schools have taken on mainland sister organizations, and 170,000 students joined exchange programs in the three academic years from 2014 to 2017.

“I will say we have a good sense of what China is,” said Johnson Yeung, 27, an activist in Hong Kong. Like his mainland counterparts, he spent countless days in school memorizing the procession of ancient dynasties and studying Chinese social history and economic development.

But “the very fact that so many high-school and even junior-high students have become the major force of the protest means China’s tactics have not worked,” he said.

Indeed, the roots of the summer protests lie partly in a 2012 rebellion against a proposed moral and national education curriculum that was seen as an attempt to force pro-Beijing studies into schools. The curriculum was withdrawn, although many Hong Kong schools have introduced elements of its content.

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But unlike China, where patriotic education is delivered in a heavily controlled environment, Hong Kong students have access to an open internet and uncensored media, where reporting on the internment of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in China’s northwest Xinjiang region and the vast financial holdings of China’s leaders undermine official narratives about the good work of the Communist Party and the selflessness of its top people.

The result is a broad-based spurning of China. Roughly two-thirds of Hong Kong’s young people would refuse to live or work in nearby mainland cities, according to a study published this year by the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups; more than 15 per cent said they would be unwilling to go even as tourists.

A 2016 report for the Hong Kong government on the values of post-1990s young people found that a majority showed great interest in the culture of China, but less than two-fifths believe the political system works well. Only a quarter claimed a good understanding of political issues in China, but the most politically active were also the most negative, demonstrating “relatively in-depth knowledge about China” while also being “more critical,” the report found.

That same year, a survey of 1,500 Hong Kong university students published by the London School of Economics found that 92 per cent held negative views of China’s Communist Party. Hong Kong University polling has found those who identify themselves as “Chinese” – as opposed to “Hongkongers” – at record lows since the city reverted to China, particularly among the young.

Protesters such as Mr. Chan, 23, who gave only a surname for fear of reprisals, say even friendship with mainland Chinese students is difficult. He studied abroad but formed closer ties with Germans, Brazilians and South Koreans than with students from China, who harshly criticized the protests in Hong Kong, dismissed Western media accounts of events in China as “fake” and presented Chinese state media as authoritative. “I honestly do not really have a relationship with them,” Mr. Chan said.

Still, even some in Hong Kong see schools as the solution, particularly in a city where social media often deliver dim messages about Beijing.

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“Our education is marked by fancy and sophisticated words like ‘independent thinking’ and ‘critical analysis.’ But we fail to teach our youngsters how to truly stay rational and self-assertive in the midst of a torrent of public opinion,” said Deng Fei, the headmaster of Heung To Secondary School and a member of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong Kong and Macau Studies, a Beijing-backed think tank.

“The most urgent thing for us to do to help young people soften their misunderstandings and stereotypes of mainland China is to take them to China and let them witness the development of this country.”

It’s not clear, however, how that will succeed. David Zweig, a retired Canadian scholar, recently completed a paper on China’s soft power in Hong Kong. Its title: Familiarity Breeds Contempt. Worsening attitudes toward China might suggest Beijing “take a step back,” said Mr. Zweig, who is now the director of Trans-National China Consulting Ltd. “But their strategy is to keep pushing it.”

Ms. Ho offered one example of the risk in such a strategy. At 16, she attended a politics class at a school in Nanjing during a two-week exchange trip.

It “was a horrible two hours,” she said. She recalled the teacher telling students that China is a democracy and contrasting its free education and health care with the poor governance of Western democracies.

“It was totally ridiculous,” Ms. Ho said. “I was actually watching people my age get brainwashed.”

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