If the Hong Kong-PRC relationship were a marriage, it would be Ashton and Demi. Face it. The only crazier math than “One Country + Two Systems” is “27-year-old actor marries actress 15 years his senior with three kids and a psychotic ex-husband.” It was only a matter of time before Hong Kong – I mean, Ashton – started stepping out on his own leaving Demi/Beijing to wallow in a growing pile of recrimination, hurt feelings, and used whippet canisters.
When a marriage goes this badly, there’s not much left to do except see how profoundly you can fuck up the children.
This past Sunday, thousands of demonstrator marched to protest the “National Education Curriculum” planned for Hong Kong public school students. The new materials, modeled after the “Patriotic History” taught in mainland schools since the early 1990s, have drawn sharp criticism from Hong Kong citizens concerned that it amounts to little more than pro-CCP brainwashing.
Who do you love, kids? Tell the nice man.
First of all, the timing sucked. This has been a weird year for identity politics in the SAR. In January, researchers at the University of Hong Kong released the results of a poll – one which has been conducted every year since 1997 – that found nearly twice as many residents preferred to identify themselves as “Hong Kongers” as opposed to “Chinese.” A month later, a bitter spat erupted on the InterWeb over a video showing Mainlanders cavalierly eating on the Hong Kong MTR and berating fellow passengers for not speaking Mandarin. The kerfuffle reached a new low when an advertisement appeared in a Hong Kong newspaper depicting mainlanders as locusts and that reliable source of patriotic douchebaggery Kong Qingdong took another giant steaming dump on his family’s legacy by calling out Hong Kongers as “British Running Dogs.”
Earlier this month the carefully choreographed 15th Anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the Motherland was upstaged by irate Hong Kongers who took to the street to protest…just about everything. C.Y. Leung. Hu Jintao. The Mainland. Housing Prices. The stagnant economy. The disturbing trend of people dying their dogs to look like pandas. Whatever.
While the new curriculum was in the works long before Beijing started sleeping on the couch, the Hong Kong government handled the announcement with all the subtlety of a fart in a bathysphere. A fart which got just a little juicier when Jiang Yudui, a member of the pro-Beijing Civic Education Program, proclaimed that some brains did indeed need washing.
Parents were furious, opposition lawmakers smelled an opportunity for cheap publicity, and before you could say “But we saved you from the British you ungrateful curs” the streets of Hong Kong filled again with demonstrators. This time they were waving signs channeling Pink Floyd (“We Don’t Need No Thought Control’) and wearing black and white to show, you know, that people in Hong Kong understand right from wrong.
Patriotic Education is of course nothing new in the mainland. Two decades ago CCP leaders – with their characteristic blend of denial, stupidity, and blinkered batshit paranoia – attributed the 1989 Tiananmen Demonstrations to a “failure of propaganda.” All those kids in the 1980s who were reading “Pride and Prejudice” and listening to “Country Roads” needed to be reminded that Jane Austen and John Denver were the opium-soaked faces of naked aggression. Oh, yeah and that Fang Lizhi was a bad, bad man.
The goal of “Patriotic Education” in mainland schools, at least in principle, is to boost the nation’s spirit, enhance national cohesion, foster national pride, and to rally the masses’ patriotic spirit to “build Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” In practice, this means highlighting the crimes committed against the Chinese people by foreign imperialists and traitorous collaborators while skipping over atrocities of a domestic vintage such as the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution.
Now, I have no problem with calling out the imperialist powers for the damage they did to China in the 19th and 20th centuries. Even the most gung-ho British apologist has to admit that going to war to turn South China into a Victorian-era version of Hamsterdam is pretty messed up. Nobody should want to gloss over that or any of the other humiliating and atrocious crimes committed against China during the 100 years from 1840 to 1949. But the problem with “Patriotic Education” is that focusing all the attention on “China the Victim” does little to encourage students to love their country or nation. Instead, it teaches them to fear and loathe other people while giving sole credit for all that is good and glorious in China today to the Party.
Lucien Pye once wrote that China is a “civilization masquerading as a state.” Allowing for a generous dollop of overgeneralization, the underlying problem Pye identified would have been immediately familiar to Sun Yat-sen and other early state builders. Before China could rise again, it needed to be unified. William Callahan, in his book The Pessoptimist Nation, argues that at the time nationalism based on shared culture, language, or ethnic identity would have been problematic because the Qing Empire was made up of many ‘national’ groups with almost nothing in common and little incentive to stick together. Forging a nation would require the artificial imposition of a higher form of identity, one which eschewed narrow definitions of nationalism in favor of a robust shared identification with The State and, ultimately, The Party.
The new Hong Kong curriculum describes the Chinese Communist Party as “progressive, selfless, and united” while criticizing as sloppy and inefficient multi-party systems like the United States and, presumably, Hong Kong. It presents history as a morality tale of venal foreigners with their native lackeys being defeated by the Party. Historical actors are either “Patriotic Heroes” or “Race Traitors,” a sensitive subtext for a city which spent nearly 160 years under foreign rule and which continues to pride itself on being a bastion of cosmopolitanism.
Unfortunately for Hong Kong, it can’t just pull an Ashton and spend anniversaries cavorting with naked blondes in a $4000/night suite at the San Diego Hard Rock. In fact, it can’t even move out of the house, so instead, the uneasy coexistence between Hong Kongers and Beijing will continue while the grown-ups fight endlessly over just what to tell the children…