Late decision appears to have cooled controversy over national education
The controversial curriculum guide that made the moral and national education (MNE) subject mandatory for schools has been shelved. At the same time, the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has also pledged that it will not try to revivify the subject with any further statutory documents.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying made the announcement on Monday afternoon, after receiving recommendations by the MNE committee, chaired by Anna Wu Hung-yuk, and following further discussions within his administration.
"We will formally shelve the curriculum guideline of the MNE. The government will not require schools to adopt the guide, nor will the Education Bureau use the guide as a basis for school inspections," he said.
Furthermore, the Education Bureau will remove students' names from a database logging school exchange tours to the mainland, in order to dispel deep misgivings about the purpose for collecting student's personal data.
But Leung maintained that civic education is vital to the city's future. He said individual schools will be respected for proceeding with any form of national education, according to their own professional and autonomous judgment.
The Chief Executive said local society has been divided amid the three-month-long controversy. Schools have been adversely affected. He then urged the local society to let matters rest, while the educational community decides the next steps.
"I hope (we can) put the dispute to rest and rebuild mutual trust in the society," Leung said. "Students should be learning in an environment free of interference."
Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim added that the promise will be kept within the term of the current administration and no other statutory document will be brought back to the agenda regarding the subject of the MNE.
Despite earlier public backing of the subject during earlier consultations, concerns abruptly erupted about the possibility of "brainwashing" and indoctrination in public circles in July, months before the new subject was to be launched, on a voluntary basis in primary and secondary schools.
The strength of the opposition led to a week-long rally, during which protestors "occupied" the compound at the government headquarters, in early September.
In a look back over developments of the past few months, Ng blamed China Model, a handbook published by a center run by the Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers (HKFEW), for stoking the controversy in what had been, otherwise, a smooth process.
The handbook, Eddie Ng said, had been "confusing the whole world" and despite the government's attempt to clarify that it did not represent government's standpoint, it delivered "a pretty minimum effect". Ng went on to explain it was a responsible approach, for the government to respond to public opinion through the proper means, of setting up a committee.
But the HKFEW disagreed. Its representative in the MNE committee, alongside one other academic, abstained from voting in the Monday morning vote.
Wong Kwan-yu, president of HKFEW, said though the group agreed with shelving the guideline, it did not feel it was right for one committee to ditch the work of another committee. "The government has its own considerations," he said.
Organizers of the mid-summer rallies responded positively on Monday. Joshua Wong Chi-fung, convener of Scholarism, said he believed that once the guideline was abandoned, the subject of MNE, as far as the school curriculum is concerned, could also be considered gone.
Wong Hak-lim, vice-president of Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union, stressed it was not the the union's intention to abandon all forms of education about China. "It is important now for schools to establish an approach to inform students about our nation that is comprehensive, subjective and open to all positions," he said.
Opponents, however, also pledged to keep a close watch on the schools' approaches to national education. Wong from the HKFEW urged the government to stand firm on national education from now on. "A lot is already underway, like the exchange tours," he said. "The government must offer help if the schools are again disturbed by others."
Anna Wu, whose negotiation effort was highly credited by all sides, said she has taken away a lesson that consensus is essential before a relaunch of national education.
"In future I hope we will have a new and fresh start in terms of consensus building," she said. "I will certainly hope that the community, particularly civil society, will utilize the platform that they have now established to communicate with the Education Bureau on all the significant matters."