Pro-Beijing politicians: Hong Kong schools’ mandatory ‘liberal studies’ helped to foment Umbrella Movement

A woman giving a free lecture at a “mobile democracy classroom” set up in Causeway Bay on Oct. 7.  (Laurel Chor/Coconuts Media)

Pro-Beijing politicians are linking the “liberal studies” course, made mandatory in Hong Kong schools in 2009, to the Umbrella Movement, reports Foreign Policy (FP).

The liberal studies curriculum is made up of six modules: personal development and interpersonal relationships, contemporary Hong Kong, modern China, globalization, energy technology and the environment, and public health.

The liberal studies course was introduced in order to help Hong Kong students transform from rote-memorising robots into critically thinking, globally aware scholars. 

The “Contemporary Hong Kong” module includes topics like political participation and the rule of law – normally academically uncontroversial, but these days, terms of contention. Certain politicians are reportedly starting to wonder whether the relatively new curriculum is to blame for this generation of rebellious, umbrella-wielding students. 

Priscilla Leung, a law professor and member of LegCo, told FP that “the possible connection” between movement and the subject “lies in the fact that there were many secondary school teachers supportive” of the protests. 

“A lot of political groups, including Benny Tai [one of the founders of Occupy Central], gave speeches in secondary schools to promote Occupy Central,” she noted. 

She did state that it is “okay for students to discuss politics” (phew!), but that the kids just can’t “thoroughly understand difficult political theories and put them into action”. Apparently it’s enough to land you on the cover of TIME Asia at age 18, though. 

Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing lawmaker and former secretary of security, also believes that the liberal studies curriculum could be improved, and claims to have discussed it with the curriculum development committee. She said the committee’s chairman agreed, saying that the course “revolves around current affairs,” she told FP. 

Fanny Law, the former permanent secretary for education and manpower and the current commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), told RTHK that she believes the programme no longer satisfies its original purpose of encouraging independent thinking, but instead focuses on politics. 

Ming Pao also reported that, at a gathering of pro-Beijing officials organised by CY Leung, some lawmakers blamed liberal studies for students joining the protests. 

The Education Bureau seems to have been making moves to change the liberal studies curriculum, proposing offering the subject as an elective, cutting down on the amount of local politics discussed, and increasing focus on the Basic Law and the concept of “one country”.

The reform process begun way back in April, but the government assures us that “the 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 official”. 

Liberal studies advocates maintain, however, that it’s the state of the current government that’s pushed people onto the streets, not their school curriculum. 

“The main factor is the political environment,” Tommy Cheung, a protester and the president of the CUHK student union, told FP. “The [government’s] decisions have become increasingly ridiculous, so young people began to question” local politics. 

Related stories:

Regina Ip claims biased Hong Kong teachers are giving anti-government students high marks

An honest translation of China Daily’s piece on the ‘radicalization’ of Hong Kong youth

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