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HONG KONG – A decade ago, thousands of Hong Kong students took to the streets to protest proposed changes to the school curriculum which they said were aimed at brainwashing them and eliminating critical thinking from the classroom. Taken aback by the scale of the demonstrations, the authorities quickly abandoned the idea.

Ten years later, even more drastic revisions to the program are taking place with barely a whisper, as a Beijing-drafted comprehensive security law crushes dissent in a city once characterized by its open debate.

New textbooks were written saying Hong Kong was “occupied” but never a British “colony”. A list of banned books – which the government refuses to publish – worries librarians. A school subject dedicated to culture critical thinking and creativity will be replaced by a spirit centered on civic values.

Many teachers look to the new environment and leave.

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Under the one country, two systems approach, Hong Kong initially retained its education system when it came under Chinese rule in 1997 and did not have the emphasis on “national security” that one located on the continent and dedicated to enhancing students’ sense of national identity and patriotism.

The most obvious change in Hong Kong came in the New Year, when primary and secondary schools began holding weekly ceremonies to raise the flag of the People’s Republic of China. Previously, officials only encouraged displaying it on special occasions, such as the anniversary of the handover.

The real changes below the surface, however, began shortly after the 2020 passage of Beijing’s national security law that banned the kind of protests that had ravaged the city for a year and ordered schools to promote “national security” on campus.

With many students taking part in the pro-democracy protests, then-Chief Executive Carrie Lam said there was “gaps” in promoting national education and vowed to do more to instill patriotism in young people – something Beijing had been pushing more and more.

Christine Choi, one of those responsible for the failed education overhaul in 2012, will take over the education department in July and said one of her main goals was to foster a sense of national identity among young people.

Publishers are revising textbooks to align with the Chinese government’s preferred narrative – in which Britain was an occupying power in Hong Kong and the Communist Party a benevolent force, while the local struggle for democracy never exist. At least four new textbooks sent to Hong Kong schools for pre-publication review no longer call Hong Kong “a colony” but an occupied territory.

“Even though Hong Kong was occupied by the British after the Opium War, it is still a territory belonging to China,” according to a manual published by the publisher of Hong Kong Modern Educational Research Society, consulted by the Washington Post.

Hong Kong Island, according to the traditional story, was ceded to Britain as a colony in 1841 by the Qing dynasty as part of a peace treaty ending a conflict known as the opium war. When the Communist Party took power in 1949, it announced that it did not recognize any treaties signed by the Qing.

The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when Chinese forces crushed a months-long pro-democracy protest in the heart of Beijing, was already downplayed in textbooks as early as 2014. It had been reduced to a one-page “incident” , although non-Chinese sources were also used for the victims.

In one of new chinese history textbooksit was cut to a paragraph, with no photos or mention of a toll or the annual vigil for victims once held in Hong Kong.

Beijing is “reshaping Hong Kong’s education in full force,” said Ho-Fung Hung, a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s about turning a subject that cultivated critical thinking into a continental-style patriotic education that instills the party line in children.”

Manuals are for one new course on civic values which replaces the former liberal studies subject, a course for seniors aimed at fostering critical thinking in students, with topics such as globalization, public health, and modern China. The new subject focuses on national identity and includes an excursion to the continent.

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Educators are bearing the brunt of shrinking teaching spaces and sweeping curriculum changes. The Hong Kong government has released guidelines to integrate national security education in at least 15 subjects, including physics, chemistry, business and accounting, which 80% of schools found “difficult to implement” with “a lack of understanding” of the issue, according to a survey conducted by a professional -government foundation.

Lo Kit-ling, a secondary school teacher, said frontline teachers found the guidelines unclear and said there was a pervasive ‘sense of helplessness’ among colleagues.

“We always observe and tend to act conservatively and censor ourselves more because we don’t want to break the security law,” she said, adding that in the current climate, parents are encouraged to wear complaint against teachers.

“It seems Hong Kong’s education system is a rolling train,” Lo said.

Librarians are also under pressure due to a government order that school libraries should delete books that endanger national security, even if denied publish a list. The Office of Education argued that the guidelines are “very clear.”

But a school librarian, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, said the lack of an official list caused confusion and stress when it came to managing her library and not put his employer in difficulty. For example, books written by imprisoned activists or those containing criticism of the Chinese government would be in a gray area for her, but without clear guidelines she pulls them to safety.

“I’m going to pull these books out first, but not throw them away and check with other school librarians,” she said. “My heart is heavy when I pull out these books.” Amid the growing stress of her work environment and the wider, stifling social climate, she applied for early retirement.

Faced with self-censorship, many teachers have also decided to leave. During the academic year 2020-21, 987 teachers left their jobs, double the number from the previous school year, an average of about seven teachers per school, according to a investigation by the Hong Kong Secondary School Heads Association in May.

In the survey, most teachers cited the general atmosphere of society as the main reason for leaving, followed by family considerations.

Some teachers, however, choose to stay in Hong Kong for one simple reason: their love for the city. Jacky Yu, a secondary school Chinese teacher, said he always believed in face-to-face teaching with students.

“I never felt hopeless. Changes in official education guidelines cannot affect the relationship between students and teachers. As a teacher, I still have room to influence my students by how I conduct myself as a person of integrity and whether my teachings can touch their hearts. These still have a much greater impact than the guidelines,” he said.