HONG KONG — Many schoolchildren 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: It wasn’t.
Beijing has steadfastly maintained that image of the city’s status long before Britain handed the city back to China in 1997, and years before sweeping repression crushed a thriving pro-democracy movement in the once semi-autonomous area.
As Hong Kong prepares to mark 25 years since its handover to China on July 1, 1997, that stance — which rejects how the British saw their relationship with the city — will be explicitly taught to Hong Kong high school students through at least four new textbooks to be rolled out in the fall.
The textbook material is still being reviewed by directors, teachers, scholars and employees of the Hong Kong Education Bureau, but it appears to be intended for classrooms. Local news websites published draft excerpts this week and The New York Times looked at teacher samples. The material joins a wider campaign by China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, to revamp Hong Kong’s schools, “protect young minds” and educate loyal, patriotic citizens.
Jeffrey Ngo, a pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong and a history doctoral student at Georgetown University, said the government’s position is “short for saying, ‘Hong Kong was always part of China, so Hong Kongers could never claim a right. of self-determination.’”
“It’s about trying to get the next generation of young children to support or at least sympathize with the government,” added Mr. Ngo to it. “This is part of the remake of Hong Kong in the era of national security.”
Under the terms of the 1997 transfer negotiated with Britain, China had agreed that the area’s social and economic systems would remain unchanged for 50 years after the resumption of sovereignty, with the result that Hong Kong initially had a high degree of autonomy from the mainland. When Beijing’s actions threatened that settlement, protesters took to the streets in 2014 and again in 2019.
In the wake of the 2019 pro-democracy protests against the Chinese Communist Party’s tightening hold on the city, Beijing sought to punish dissent, restrict freedom of expression and target independent news media and pro-democracy leaders. It persecuted thousands of activists, some of whom fled into exile. A national security law imposed on Hong Kong also gave authorities far-reaching powers to silence the opposition. Another target for officials was Hong Kong’s education system, which they said had shaped the beliefs of young people leading the demonstrations.
Steve Tsang, the director of SOAS China Institute in London, said that since the Chinese leadership issued a memo in 2013 known as Document No. 9, which addressed Western influences in the country, China has only had one version of history. allowed taught. Hong Kong would no longer be an exception to the rule.
“In the Xi approach to history, facts are only incidental,” Professor Tsang said. “Only the interpretation counts. And only one interpretation is allowed.”
Scholars and historians said China’s portrayal of Hong Kong’s status under British rule is not new. Although the Communist Party had called China a “semi-colony, semi-feudal society” before 1949, it has maintained that Hong Kong was not a true colony since 1997, said Ho-fung Hung, a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University and the United Nations. author of “City on the Edge: Hong Kong Under Chinese Rule.”
He quoted an article in the party newspaper, People’s Daily, published in March 1997, which stated: “The United Kingdom has exercised typical colonial rule in Hong Kong, but that doesn’t mean Hong Kong is a colony. Colonies in the usual sense mainly refer to countries that have lost their sovereignty as a result of foreign rule and jurisdiction. Hong Kong is part of the Chinese territory, so the concept of colony does not apply to Hong Kong.”
In the 19th century, Britain took over present-day Hong Kong through two wars and a series of treaties that the Chinese government believed were unequal and forced.
In 1946, the United Nations placed Hong Kong on a list of “non-self-governing areas”, and in a 1960 resolution they said the people there should be given “the right to self-determination”. In 1972, after Beijing took over China’s seat in the world body, it urged the UN to remove Hong Kong from the list, arguing that it was China’s sovereign right to decide Hong Kong’s future.
“Beijing has never acknowledged that China had relinquished its sovereignty over Hong Kong, that British rule in Hong Kong had legitimacy, and that 1997 is the time for China to resume the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong,” Lau Siu-kai, a senior Beijing’s adviser on Hong Kong’s policy, said in an interview.
He added: “Beijing only admits that Britain imposed ‘colonial rule’ on Hong Kong. Textbooks should, of course, reflect Beijing’s position. †
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Mr. Lau, who is listed as an editorial advisor 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 hub of a revamped civics course known as liberal studies in recent years. It used to emphasize critical thinking and teach students to be objective and analytical. The older curriculum, developed by education officials in 2007 and periodically updated, did not appear to be responsive to the circumstances that led to the handover of Hong Kong. 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 “unquestionable sovereignty and jurisdiction” and national security law.
Textbook excerpts seen by The Times repeatedly reinforce the party’s stance on Hong Kong. “The British aggression has violated the principles of international law, so the occupation of the Hong Kong region should not have been recognized as lawful,” read the trial version of the teacher’s edition of a textbook published by the Hong Kong Educational Publishing Company.
“Hong Kong had no colonial status, so there was no so-called self-determination,” it continued.
The Hong Kong Educational Publishing Company, which published two of the four textbooks, did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did two other textbook publishers that 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 trial process was confidential and that the department would “follow up” with those who violated the terms.
It did not identify anyone or answer questions about the contents of the books.
Austin Ramzy contributed to the reporting.