National education a tough sell in a city still shaking|Michael Cox

Published (HKT): 2021.04.20 09:31

If the Hong Kong Police Force and authorities think “Raptor” teddy bears, riot police figurines and fake Lennon Walls are enough to sway public opinion then we have some bad news: you can rewrite history, but you can’t erase memories, and the ham-fisted attempts at brainwashing school children could cause unintended consequences.

The Raptor-themed teddy bears, yours for just HK$488, were part of the now-annual National Security Education day, the first since the implementation of National Security Law(NSL) in June last year. The family fun in Hong Kong also included kids writing authoritarian propaganda on post-it notes to be stuck on classroom walls, toting replica weapons in pretend MTR stations and a theme park-style live show at the Police College.

We can only assumed that the cuddly cop teddy bears, complete with tiny little cable ties, are to be used during playtime to illegally detain and torture the other plush toys. What’s next? Nerf-style sponge grenades and a “my first little water cannon crowd dispersal vehicle” (toxic blue dye not included). It all seems a dystopian nightmare, but also so ridiculous that you can’t help but think of it as a rush job from insecure officialdom.

So why do the authorities think this approach will work in changing attitudes to their despised police force and public opinion of the far-reaching new laws that have descended on Hong Kong society like a dark cloud?

The overhaul of Hong Kong’s education has long been an aim of pro-Beijing officials, so – with all opposition effectively removed – it is hardly a surprise to see the changes and the general themes, but the swiftness of it all has been startling.

Many of the “national security” curriculum changes are similar to the rejected “Moral and national education (MNE)” that helped spark the Umbrella Revolution protests of 2014, but unlike when those changes were proposed, this time there was a comparatively limited consultation period and far less scope for feedback or changes. With no dissenting voices, COVID-19 and NSL limiting public demonstrations and a rubber-stamp government, things happen fast these days.

The new high school subject “citizen and social development” – a stripped-down version the liberal studies subject authorities have targeted for its supposed subversive effect on students – will contain new sections relating to national security, patriotism and lawfulness. The new subject will be part of the curriculum by the start of the new school year in September and as well as all text books being vetted by officials, students will be expected to visit mainland China as part of the course. But it would seem most of the curriculum changes and the National Security Education Day will be aimed at younger children, and little wonder, with the teenage generation seemingly lost.

Statistics from ANITELAB Research Data Archive show that nearly 1,700 – more than 14 percent – of the 9,726 protesters arrested between June 9 last year and August 2020 were aged between 12 and 17. And that is just the teenagers that were caught, of which was only a small percentage of those terrorized. So what exactly could you tell to a child that was being teargassed and chased by police two years ago that would change their minds about their pursuers now?

Yet the real danger for authorities isn’t that their approach won’t win over the kids, it is that officials might truly believe in what they are doing and saying. They believe that the appearance of order is a sign of good governance. They believe that creating a culture of fear that results in the absence of constructive public criticism is a strength, not a potentially fatal flaw in their system.

The biggest misconceptions from authorities, from Beijing down – and from all but a shrinking segment of the media – is the underestimation of the size, scale and political commitment of the Hong Kong protest movement. It is an underestimation distorted even further in the nearly two years since the 2019 protests began by the criminalization of opposition views and silencing of criticism. People haven’t changed their minds, they have just chosen to stay silent.

The ticking time bomb for authorities as they try to “sell” National Security Law to a deeply traumatized society is that it will be rejected – not publicly of course, as it is being made clear that criticism could carry life in prison – but quietly. And not just rejected by those who had expressed dismay at the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and took to the streets two years ago, but others who had stayed on the side lines: perhaps they were also wary of mainland rule but not committed enough, or simply too scared, to take to the streets.

What of the parents now expected to buy textbooks full of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda? Maybe they can see the benefits of mainland-style laws like NSL, but do they want their children to be exposed to mainland-style education? Even elites from the mainland once wanted their children educated in Hong Kong. What of the expat parents who in 2019 thought the protests a mere inconvenience, but now must face up to the idea of their children being taught citizen and social development? Maybe the changes to education and naff efforts to normalize police violence and authoritarian ideas might even make some “blue ribbons” second guess their decisions.

Trying to get children to understand National Security Law and its vague definitions of secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign collusion is a tough sell – even the shaprest legal minds don’t know where the red lines are – but none of it as tough a sell as trying to sell $488 Raptor teddy bears.

(Michael Cox is a journalist and Hong Kong permanent resident currently based in Australia. He has previously written for the South China Morning Post, The Age (Melbourne) and Australian Associated Press.)

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