Effective Civic Education…In Hong Kong

What is the purpose of civic education?

I could argue–indeed, I have argued–that people who don’t understand the basic structure of their country’s government lack personal efficacy. They don’t know where to go to get their problems with officialdom solved, for one thing.

The argument focused on democratic self-government is obvious: people who don’t know how the system is supposed to work aren’t prepared to cast informed votes.

These observations are true, but incomplete. A recent article in the New York Times reminded me that civic ignorance also aids and abets autocracy. The article reported on Beijing’s belief that civics education has contributed to the uprising in Hong Kong .

HONG KONG — They are sitting in orderly rows, wearing neatly pressed uniforms. But in this class, as they debate the merits of democracy and civil rights, Hong Kong high school students are prompting Beijing to worry that they are increasingly out of control.

The mandatory civics course known here as liberal studies has been a hallmark of the curriculum in Hong Kong for years, and students and teachers say the point is to make better citizens who are more engaged with society.

But mainland Chinese officials and pro-Beijing supporters say the prominence of the city’s youth at recent mass protests is the clearest sign yet that this tradition of academic freedom has gone too far, giving rise to a generation of rebels.

It is certainly the case that both university and high-school students have been active participants in the current protests.  And according to the article, students are planning class boycotts intended to ramp up pressure on the government to enact universal suffrage and fully withdraw the contentious extradition bill that triggered the current uprisings.[Update: the government has fully withdrawn the extradition bill, so to that extent, the protests were successful.]

On the mainland, China approaches education as indoctrination.

China’s ruling Communist Party has long seen education as a crucial ideological tool for nurturing loyal citizens. Under Xi Jinping, the country’s authoritarian leader, the party has ramped uppatriotic education on the mainland, helping shape one of the most nationalistic generations of youth that the country has seen in years.

The U.S. has its share of “patriots” who also believe that the nation’s schools should be a venue for inculcating the “proper” perspectives and values. We have an even larger percentage of lawmakers who equate education with job training, and dismiss the importance of a liberal education and the creation of knowledgable , participating citizens.

We have far too many politicians who would enthusiastically agree with Xu Luying, who was quoted in the article:

“There is indeed a problem with the national education of Hong Kong’s youth,” said Xu Luying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, at a news conference last month. “Passionately loving the country and passionately loving the motherland should be taught in the first class in school.”

In fact, the critique of Hong Kong’s civics course sounds depressingly familiar. In recent surveys, Republicans have soured on higher education, and make similar accusations.

Many educators and democracy advocates in Hong Kong say the course teaches students to be analytical and objective, even when it comes to examining the party’s flaws. To present a distorted version of history, they argue, is to undermine the intellectual rigor of a system that has consistently ranked among the top in global education indexes.

“They want to make young people dumber and less aware,” said Hoi Wai-hang, 38, who has taught liberal studies for 10 years.

But pro-Beijing officials have accused liberal studies of stoking anti-mainland sentiment.

Some, like Mr. Tung, the former Hong Kong leader, blame the curriculum. Others, including the Hong Kong Island Chaoren Association, a community organization with pro-Beijing views, blame the teachers. The group said in July that students should not have to take liberal studies classes at school because they could be swayed by the political beliefs of their teachers.

The conflict over civics instruction in Hong Kong has highlighted what the article calls “the increasingly untenable contradiction” between academic freedom as a core value and ideological control.

That contradiction isn’t limited to China and Hong Kong.


  1. When I toured China, our guides were very forthcoming about their government and their views of the world. The tour company trained them with travels to all western countries where they perfected their English…which was very good.

    Their political comments were also not necessarily doctrinaire. In fact they took considerable pains to explain the mistakes of Tienamen (sic) Square and how their education of children was more about preparing their kids for the economics of the 21st century than any so-called ideology.

    Of course, it’s not that simple, but things just didn’t seem that overtly problematic…at least to us tourists. Hong Kong is different than the mainland by every measure. Remember, it was a British protectorate for centuries before WW II and then after the Japanese were removed. The Hong Kong culture is definitely NOT mainland Chinese in just about every way. No wonder the struggle to adapt is so painful. Why it would be almost like have the United States reject racism en masse.

  2. A part of my childhood was living in Tsingtao, a city on the coast of the Yellow Sea, far Eastern China. The time was late 40’s during the Japanese Occupation post WWll. We were suddenly evacuated (March 1949) as Mao Tesueng’s liberation fighters descended from surrounding hills. The stark memory of walking out on the tarmack at midnight boarding a cargo plane strapped on top of a container remains a daunting memory. Hong Kong was under Japanese Occupation as well, but the economic history of Hong Kong and the mainland unfolded differently.

    Hong Kong has the highest economic freedom score (90.2) in the world based on the Economic Freedom of the World Index. The top 10 countries by economic freedom are: Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland, Australia, Ireland, Estonia, United Kingdom, Canada, United Arab Emirates.

    In contrast, the mainland has had a free port in Shanghai since only 2013, but with special free port status limited.

    An open market does inspire a very real connection with the other world along with a morebopen free exchange of ideas. The more contemporary conditions literally developed before our eyes within most of the lifetimes who frequent Sheila’s excellent posts on this exchange.

    Hong Kong is an outlier and a beacon of hope for the people of China. How all this developed since 1949, 70 years ago, is mind boggling and really very remarkable.

  3. “On the mainland, China approaches education as indoctrination.”

    Indoctrinate per the Cambridge English Dictionary: “to often repeat an idea or belief to someone to pursuade them to accept it.”

    Per “The Manchurian Candidate”, indoctrination was brainwashing. Per the Trump administration, indoctrination meant you tell a lie often enough and it become truth.

    “In fact, the critique of Hong Kong’s civics course sounds depressingly familiar. In recent surveys, Republicans have soured on higher education, and make similar accusations.”

    The Republicans have soured on all levels of education; rather than China’s “passionately loving the county and passionately loving the motherland” has resulted in Pence and Betsy DeVos’ creationism and their “God’s Kingdom” will become their solution if not stopped. This makes civics education in this country more vital than ever before; before creationism has successfully taken over public education and the public education tax budget supports only voucher students. A map on a recent MSNBC report showed that Indiana requires one semester of Civics; but what is the content and source of information of those classes?

  4. Hong Kong lived as a democracy under British Rule for more than 150 years, while mainland China was ruled by emperors and despots. It takes generations to learn how to be a democracy and likewise generations to learn how NOT to be one. We can only hope the people of Hong Kong prevail eventually.

    Here at home, we have given lip service to our democratic republic, but too few of us know what it really means. We have had generations of taking it for granted and becoming disinterested. The Koch brothers and their friends have hastened our rising level of disinterest. We can only hope sanity eventually prevails for the people of the good old US of A.

  5. “They want to make young people dumber and less aware,” said Hoi Wai-hang, 38, who has taught liberal studies for 10 years.”

    The USA made the same conscious decision decades ago according to the “History of Self.” The development of the CIA saw them look upon U.S. citizens with distrust. The rebellious ’60s and ’70s proved them right. We went from an informed citizenry to being “dumbed down.”

    This continued until the advent of the internet and Smart Phones disrupted the indoctrination process. Those of you still relying on the TV for “news” or to be informed are still being nationalized since their sole purpose is entertainment — not to inform or enlighten the citizenry.

    As a side note, does anybody remember how Mitch Daniels handled the death of the liberal historian, Howard Zinn?

    They want us working for peanuts and unthinking. As long as the stock market is flying high, we are doing our duty as citizens. As long as we stand for the national anthem and buy big trucks and guns, we are being good citizens.

    We went from being an informed citizenry to consumers. We consume the news versus thinking for ourselves. As long as we consume cheap plastic crap assembled in China and Viet Nam, we are being good citizens. How dare we demand free healthcare and college — bad citizens, very bad citizens!! Join a union is BAD because they are greedy. Demanding a minimum wage higher than $7.25 is unAmerican. Don’t look at the stock market and CEO wages to ascertain you are getting screwed — that’s being a bad citizen.

    Also, any form of “socialism” is bad. Capitalism is the best system in the world. And you’re not allowed to think otherwise or research for yourself the poor outcomes our economic system produces. A comparative analysis is unthinkable.

    This switch was flipped in the ’50s intentionally and then carried out over the following decades in the United States which is one of the reasons we have a game show host in the White House and we suffer from the greatest income and wealth inequality since the 1930s.

  6. As we all know from our history studies and absorbing real news there are several way that minorities can impose what’s best for them on majorities. The tools of power are numerous and besides obvious means like guns and “rules” and walls and midnight fires in costume there are more subtle ways that fall under the general category of brainwashing which is the opposite of teaching.

    People who believe themselves entitled to power will never, ever stop trying to sneak them into a nations agenda.

    They are opposed by people who believe themselves entitled to freedom from power.

    We are lucky here because our ancestors did the heavy lifting in that never ending struggle before our turn came and sealed their victory with a government built as a liberal democracy meaning that our consent to be governed requires the power to hire and fire those who govern and those who govern have to follow laws specifically for how the government operates, our Constitution.

    Those believing that they are entitled to power haven’t given up though and have employed the technologically grown and growing ability of entertainment media to deploy advertising/fake news/propaganda/brainwashing to replace education as the fuel for the fires of power versus freedom.

    The question which will be answered in 2020 is who’s winning in the US right now? Education in schools or advertising/fake news/propaganda/brainwashing on entertainment media?

  7. Todd sounds like me today but far better. My wife and I visited Hong Kong and Macau as tourists before the British surrender of their protectorate to mainland China and I was stricken by the relative freedom of the populace there in going about their everyday capitalist activities, activities done under a philosophy diametrically opposed to mainland views of economic organization.

    I note since that mainland China has become a state capitalist system and in so doing is at least partially emulating the Hong Kong example economically while pretending to be politically opposed to the system in which they are participating. This Mao never dies pretense from Beijing is about as phony as Republican pretense of the freedom for all provided by our capitalist system as currently practiced. Mao is politically and economically dead and only the rich and privileged are free in our country.

    Civic ignorance among a population of laborers and consumers provides a real opportunity for the rich and corporate class to exploit via propaganda and flag waving in their quest for profit, but It appears that these capitalists are beginning to recognize that the system as presently practiced is not working with a recent conclave in which 195 CEOs now (and belatedly) tell us that corporations are responsible for something beyond Friedman’s “shareholder value.” They are now telling us that employees, consumers and other shareholders in the corporate enterprise are to be considered, and why, after even persuading the courts to approve their former Friedman position?

    I think they see that the jig is up; that their “socialism” propaganda isn’t selling to younger Americans; that Americans of all ages are sick and tired of corporate hogging of the wealth and income produced by all of us in our respective capacities in this economy which has resulted in wage and wealth inequality beyond reason as the finance sector hogs such profits and all while we the peoples are struggling with inadequate funding of education, infrastructure, social services etc., and also while observing that even China (from its humble beginnings) has bullet trains and other first class accommodations that Republicans and their corporate donors say we, the richest country in the world, cannot afford.

    Perhaps, at long last, civic education is beginning to trickle down among the masses and, if so, as suggested by the 195 CEOs who see the handwriting on the door, we are either going to reform this system with fair and equitable returns to all – or change systems.

  8. I agree 100% with Todd.

    When the government allows states to pass regulations that cripple large sections of the population, mostly poor and minorities, you’re going to have chaos. Gun laws, pay scale, education, privileges or lack thereof, healthcare, and the like, keep a very small minority in charge. I guess you could call them the ruling class.

    When people have to fight for enough food to eat, a roof over their head, a fair wage, healthcare, education, equality and equal treatment under the law, they are too busy to pay attention to politics. When your life is consumed by just being able to survive, people become disillusioned and feel that there is nothing they can do about their lot in life.

    Ronald Reagan looted the Social Security system, he decimated our mental health programs in the United States, his FEMA chief (Louis O. Giuffrida) was instrumental in developing a program in which immigrants would be rounded up and put in concentration camps in the United States, it was called readiness exercise 1984 (Rex 84).

    Louis O. Giuffrida, attaining the rank of colonel at the Army war College, he wrote a thesis outlining a plan to forcibly relocate “millions of black Americans” to concentration camps if racial strife on a mass scale occurred in the United States.

    This was modified during the Reagan administration to include Mexicans and Central and South Americans. Giuffrida, had a long history with Reagan even before Reagan became president. He was an advisor to the then Gov. Reagan of California.

    The Republican Party has been actively working to destroy Social Security, Medicare, and the affordable care act, public education, wage equity, racial equality, because they tout it as socialism. Of course they have no problem with socialism when it comes to corporations or the redistribution of wealth to the very very privileged few.

    When you have a crook at the top, everyone below feels emboldened to let it fly. They have no concerns about being prosecuted or being held accountable. They just hope that everything is so discombobulated and FUBARed there will never be an accountability for their actions. They seem to be shielding terrorists organizations that are active in the United States, The NRA, white supremacists and such, and to support dismantling programs that reek terror in many Americans. Maybe the Republican Party should be considered a terrorist organization.

  9. All Men are created equal and the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave was always meaningless. Slavery, a genocidal war against Native Americans and second class citizenship for woman, were in force since the time America became a country.

    Todd brought up Howard Zinn and Mitch Daniels. Zinn outlined the “real story” of American History and how the 1% fought against any Progressive Agenda.

    As a Boomer, I lived through the tumultuous 1960’s and 70’s, with the Civil Rights, anti-war and anti draft demonstrations. These mass actions challenged the hidden economic, social and cultural agenda of “Know Your Place and Be Happy”. It was sit down shut-up and live happily ever after.

    The Reactionary Right understood the great danger was in ideas of critical thinking being taught in schools. Hence, the necessity of taking over the education system with an emphasis on job training and rote memorization. The religious schools take this one step beyond with Macho-Man Authoritarianism and a fanatic belief in Bronze Age Mythology.

    There was always on the Reactionary Right and Bible Thumper’s a desperate nostalgic attempt to return to some Norman Rockwell Painting of what America was and should be. Thus, any attempt at righting wrongs in our society or inequality had to move with glacial slowness.

    President Agent Orange and Pastor Pence with MAGA, have amplified the whole idea of returning to a mythical past. This mythical past is why the the Reactionary Right is in an all attack mode on “The Squad”. The Squad represents the future.

  10. My wife and two boys and I lived in Hong Kong for nearly two years during my working life.

    After 150 years of liberal rule by the British, Hong Kongers became thoroughly democratic, a system which remains second only to capitalism in how deeply it is loved. During that period of almost total turmoil on the mainland, Hong Kong’s way of life and governance were never threatened until, by treaty, Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997. Like other Asian countries, Hong Kongers are lovers of education; education leads to critical questioning (I love my country unreservedly, but there is much about it I despise), so they have a very difficult time swallowing the autocratic rule of China’s communists.

    Hong Kong’s 7 million inhabitants will put up a good fight, but China’s 2 million plus army will overwhelm them in a matter of hours if they decide to traverse the small number of miles that separate the two.

    To China, patriotism is a simple concept. It means that Sammy Citizen agrees with everything the state says and does. Anything less is treason. If Hong Kong is able to maintain this impasse the way Taiwan has (for 70 years), and can do so minus the U.S. Seventh Fleet, it will have accomplished a minor miracle.

  11. From Jerome Braun : http://hnn.us/article/173095

    “Much of modern American political strategy, whether Democratic or Republican, depends on a disinterested public. Many politicians rely on this apathy by communicating in depth with the public only as a last resort, while developing their policy ideas by continually communicating with lobbyists. Poor civic education for the mass of the population, and mass media that emphasize entertainment even when it comes to covering political campaigns, contribute to the apathy of the public. As part of the policy process followed by many politicians, triangulation to achieve a compromise between interest groups often results in merely finding a mid-point between the desires of the one percent and everyone else, not the golden mean of Aristotelian ethics. ‘

    “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” yet again….

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