In new textbooks, Hong Kong was never a British colony

HONG KONG – Many school children around the world have long learned that Hong Kong was once a colony of the British Empire. But students in Hong Kong will soon learn another lesson: that was not the case.

Beijing has firmly maintained this historic view of the city’s status, long before Britain returned the territory to China in 1997, and years before a sweeping crackdown crushed a thriving pro-democracy movement in the formerly semi-autonomous territory.

Now, as Hong Kong prepares to commemorate 25 years since its handover to China on July 1, 1997, this narrative – which rejects the way the British viewed their relationship with the city – will be explicitly taught to Hong Kong high school students across at least four new manuals that will be rolled out in the fall.

The textbook materials are still being reviewed by principals, teachers, academics and Hong Kong Education Bureau employees, but appear to be intended for classrooms. Local news websites published draft excerpts this week, and The New York Times viewed teachers’ proof copies. The material is part of a wider campaign led by China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, to overhaul Hong Kong’s schools, “protect young minds” and nurture loyal, patriotic citizens.

Jeffrey Ngo, a Hong Kong pro-democracy activist and doctoral candidate in history at Georgetown University, said the government’s position “is shorthand for saying, ‘Hong Kong has always been part of China, so Hong Kong people have never been able to claim a right of self-determination”.

“It’s about trying to ensure that the next generation of young children will support or at least sympathize with what the government is saying,” Ngo added. “It’s part of remaking Hong Kong in the age of national security.”

Under the terms of the 1997 cession negotiated with Britain, China had agreed that the territory’s social and economic systems would remain unchanged for 50 years after it regained sovereignty, so Hong Kong initially had a high degree of autonomy. compared to the mainland. When movements in Beijing threatened this arrangement, protesters took to the streets in 2014 and again in 2019.

Following 2019 pro-democracy protests against the Chinese Communist Party’s tightening grip on the city, Beijing has sought to punish dissent, limit free speech and target independent media and pro-leaders. -democracy. He pursued thousands of activists and some fled into exile. A national security law imposed on Hong Kong has also given authorities the power to silence opposition. Officials also targeted Hong Kong’s education system, which they said had shaped the beliefs of young people who led the protests.

Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, said that since Chinese leaders issued a memo known as Document No. 9 in 2013 that targeted Western influences in the country, China has only allowed only one version of the story. taught. Hong Kong would no longer be an exception to the rule.

“In Xi’s approach to history, facts are merely incidental,” Professor Tsang said. “Only interpretation matters. And only one interpretation is allowed.

Scholars and historians have said China’s portrayal of Hong Kong’s status under British rule is not new. Although the Communist Party called China before 1949 a “half-colonial, half-feudal society”, it has maintained since at least 1997 that Hong Kong was not a real colony, said Ho-fung Hung, a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University and author of “City on the Edge: Hong Kong Under Chinese Rule”.

He quoted an article from the party newspaper, People’s Daily, published in March 1997, which claimed: “The UK exercised typical colonial rule in Hong Kong, but that does not mean that Hong Kong is a colony. Colonies in the usual sense mainly refer to countries that have lost their sovereignty due to foreign rule and jurisdiction. Hong Kong is part of Chinese territory, so the concept of a colony does not apply to Hong Kong.

In the 19th century, Britain took control of what is now Hong Kong through two wars and a series of treaties that the Chinese government has described as unequal and coercive.

In 1946, the United Nations included Hong Kong on a list of “non-self-governing territories” and in a 1960 resolution declared that the people of this country should be granted “the right of self-determination”. In 1972, after Beijing took over China’s seat in the world body, it successfully pushed the UN to remove Hong Kong from the list, arguing that it was China’s sovereign right to decide. of Hong Kong’s future.

“Beijing has never recognized that China relinquished its sovereignty over Hong Kong, that British rule in Hong Kong was legitimate, and that 1997 is when China resumed exercising sovereignty over Hong Kong,” said Lau Siu-kai, Beijing’s senior adviser. on Hong Kong politics, said in an interview.

He added: “Beijing only admits that Britain imposed a ‘colonial regime’ on Hong Kong. Textbooks, of course, must reflect Beijing’s position. ”

Mr Lau, who is appointed editorial adviser to one of the textbooks, declined to comment further on the books themselves, saying he had played only a limited role.

The new textbooks appear to be the linchpin of a revamped high school civics course that in the past was known as liberal studies. It emphasized critical thinking and taught students to be objective and analytical. The old program, which was developed in 2007 and periodically updated, does not appear to address the circumstances that led to Hong Kong’s handover. Some teachers discussed democracy, civil rights and even the Tiananmen Square massacre as part of their lesson plans.

The new course, which was renamed Citizenship and Social Development last year, lists “Hong Kong’s return to China” as part of the first lesson plan. It places greater emphasis on patriotism, China’s “indisputable sovereignty and jurisdiction” and national security law.

Excerpts from the manuals seen by The Times repeatedly reinforce the party’s position on Hong Kong. “British aggression violated the principles of international law, so its occupation of the Hong Kong area should not have been recognized as lawful,” reads the teacher’s edition essay by a textbook published by the Hong Kong Educational Publishing Company.

“Hong Kong had no colonial status, and therefore there was no so-called self-determination,” he continued.

The Hong Kong Educational Publishing Company, which published two of the four textbooks, did not respond to requests for comment. Nor two other textbook publishers who denied Hong Kong’s colonial status: Aristo Educational Press and Modern Educational Research Society.

Hong Kong’s Education Bureau, which oversees the review of new textbooks, said in a statement last week that the review process was confidential and that the department would “track” those who violated its terms.

He did not identify anyone and did not answer questions about the contents of the books.

Austin Ramzy contributed reporting.

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