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Did ‘Liberal Studies’ Enable Hong Kong’s Youth Awakening?

Lawmakers have targeted the controversial high school subject as a possible wellspring of recent protests.

NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images
NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests would not have been possible without the deep involvement of thousands of students, who have shown a resolve that has belied the once-prevailing view of their city as apolitical — and prompted the political elite there to search for explanations. The protests began on Sept. 22 with a student-led boycott, and students have composed the backbone of the sit-ins, which have crippled parts of the Asian financial center for more than seven weeks. But the government itself may have inadvertently planted the seeds of the protests years prior; in seeking answers, some members of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing camp have seized upon a secondary school curriculum known as "liberal studies."

In Sept. 2009, the government mandated liberal studies in secondary schools as part of education reform. The subject comprised six modules: personal development and interpersonal relationships, contemporary Hong Kong, modern China, globalization, energy technology and the environment, and public health. Contemporary Hong Kong has become the most controversial of all, as it broaches topics like political participation and the rule of law. As part of the curriculum, students are required to complete an individual project, which involves in-depth research and the submission of a 1,500 to 4,000-word report. At the time of the reform, rote learning had been the norm in Hong Kong’s school system, and the subject was introduced to nurture critical thinking skills and raise students’ awareness of issues influencing Hong Kong, China, and the world.

While no bright line connects the curricular reforms with the protests, many seen as sympathetic to Beijing view liberal studies unfavorably. "The possible connection" between the protests and the curricular subject "lies in the fact that there were many secondary school teachers supportive" of the protests, Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, a law professor and lawmaker, told Foreign Policy."A lot of political groups, including [protest leader] Benny Tai, gave speeches in secondary schools to promote Occupy Central," one of the terms used to refer to the protests. Although she added it was "okay for students to discuss politics," they are unable to "thoroughly understand difficult political theories and put them into action." Another legislator, Regina Ip, said she has discussed liberal studies with the curriculum’s development committee and finds it wanting. Ip told FP, "The chairman [of the committee], an academic himself, said that too much revolves around current affairs."

Even Fanny Law, the former Permanent Secretary of Hong Kong’s Education Bureau who advocatedmaking liberal studies a mandatory subject during her tenure from 2002 to 2006, joined those speaking against it. In an interview with Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK, Law lamented that liberal studies, a subject designed to encourage independent thinking, has deviated from its original purpose and focused on politics instead.

When Hong Kong authorities accepted the liberal studies proposal back in 2000, it was before fears of gradual encroachment by Beijing had reached their current apex. The reviled anti-subversion law, later tabled before its implementation after thousands of city residents protested what they saw as an attack on their fundamental freedoms, wasn’t proposed until 2003. In an October 2000 poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Program, 32.1 percent of respondents said they did not trust Beijing; in the latest poll in September 2014, 52 percent of respondents gave the same answer.

The Hong Kong government may be preparing to clamp down on liberal studies. Hong Kong’s Education Bureau has offered a slew of suggestions to change the curriculum, including reducing the portion of the curriculum discussing local politics, increasing focus on Hong Kong’s governing Basic Law and the concept of "one country" — both of which Beijing would surely applaud — and offering the subject as an elective. In an Oct. 26 press release, the bureau stated that the reform process had begun in April, and explicitly disavowed any connection between the proposed changes and the protests, writing, "It is worth pointing out that these review activities are not specifically related to the recent ‘Occupy Central’ incidents and are not held as a result of any instruction from any government senior officials. We hope that all sectors should avoid intruding with political matters into school curriculum development." On the evening of Oct. 10, Leung held an informal evening meeting with lawmakers viewed as pro-Beijing, according to an Oct. 26 report by respected Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao. At that gathering, legislators reportedly blamed the subject of liberal studies for inciting students to join the protests.

But liberal studies supporters counter that there has been substantial misunderstanding about the subject. "There are a total of six modules and 12 themes, and only one theme consists of politics," Jacob Hui Shing-yan, president of the Hong Kong Liberal Studies Teachers’ Association, said in an interview with FP. "This subject’s examination requires student to maintain a balanced view." Tommy Cheung Sau-yin, the president of the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s student union and himself a protest participant, believes that the subject of liberal studies is "a catalyst" in the political awakening of the city’s students.* Cheung was among the first cohort to take the liberal studies examination and was also a former member of Scholarism, one of the secondary student groups leading the current protests. "The main factor is the political environment," Cheung told FP. "The [government’s] decisions have become increasingly ridiculous, so young people began to question" their politicians more than they had before.

Educational reform in Hong Kong is no stranger to controversy, and has engendered heated protests before. Scholarism got its start pushing back against a government-sponsored education proposal. In 2010, the Hong Kong government proposed the addition of a new compulsory subject, "Moral and National Education," to primary and secondary schools. Proponents believed that the subject would allow students to learn more about mainland China and increase their sense of belonging to the motherland; such a measure might also serve to counteract the emphasis on independent thinking encouraged by liberal studies. But detractors argued that the proposal equated to "brainwashing," and a broadly supported protest movement, led in part by the newly formed Scholarism, emerged. The city’s government shelved Moral and National Education after protesters occupied the government headquarters for ten days.

Whether or not liberal studies directly contributed to what Scholarism leader Wong has called a "political awakening" among his generation, the change in the political tenor of the city’s youth is undeniable. "If you told people five years ago that high school students would get involved in politics, they wouldn’t have believed you," Wong told the New York Times in July 2014. "For students, what we have is persistence in our principles and stubbornness in our ideals. If students don’t stand in the front line, who will?"

*Correction, Nov. 20, 2014: The subject of liberal studies is "a catalyst" in the political awakening of Hong Kong’s students. Due to a translation error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated it was "an emulsifier." (Return to reading.)

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