Will a Controversial Education Reform Spark Fresh Protests in Hong Kong?
Carrie Lam, the incoming Chief Executive of Hong Kong, has already sparked controversy following incendiary remarks about Hong Kong’s education system in which she emphasized that schools should be placing more focus on instilling a so-called “Chinese spirit.” Given Hong Kong’s history of student-led demonstrations and turbulent relationship with Mainland China, Lam’s inflammatory comments risk creating further social unrest and do nothing to address the acute failings of Hong Kong’s dilapidated education system.
As a Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong enjoys relative autonomy under the sovereignty of the People’s Republic of China. However, since the 1997 handover and the establishment of the “one country, two systems” framework, Hong Kong’s fledgling democracy, political freedoms and individual liberties, have been slowly eroded by a more assertive Beijing. In 2012, the serving Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, attempted to introduce a new national curriculum revolving around nationalizing and favorably interpreting Hong Kong’s and China’s “shared” culture and history.
Following an immediate public backlash, peaceful student-led protests have become a staple of Hong Kong politics ever since. In 2014 and 2015, Hong Kong’s students converted from learners to political activists by spearheading an explosive pro-democracy movement known as the Umbrella Revolution. Threatened by the possibility of youth unrest on the mainland, Beijing swiftly condemned the “color revolution” as a destabilizing and unprecedented threat to party rule.
Meanwhile, Ms. Lam’s victory in the 2017 Chief Executive election has highlighted an uncomfortable fact: the Umbrella Revolution, while underscoring the newfound influence of Hong Kong’s students, achieved nothing and Beijing’s influence in Hong Kong has never seemed more entrenched. With Hong Kong’s students politically disenfranchised and suspicious of Ms. Lam’s relationship with Beijing, it would be a colossal strategic and political mistake for the new Chief Executive to embark on a pro-Chinese education plan.
Choosing China over change would be a shame and missed opportunity, since Hong Kong’s education system really is broken. While on the campaign trail, Ms. Lam pledged to contribute a further HK$5 billion to education atop the existing budget of HK$75 billion. Hit with recurrent budget cuts, Hong Kong’s education system is ill equipped to properly support special needs students, improve school facilities, and finance teacher training for non-Chinese schools. However, despite the proposed increase in funding, the education system will remain flawed unless the underlying issues relating to student mindset, cooperation and mental wellbeing are addressed. Unfortunately, she’s tackling the problem in entirely the wrong way.
Hong Kong’s former chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, recently complained that the education system is not “forward-looking enough” to equip young people for a rapidly changing world. Employers are also lamenting that local students are not as competitive and hardworking as they used to be, a fact attributed to a lack of “soulware,” a term describing mentality, culture and behavior in the workforce. Examined on mechanical learning ability and expected to achieve overwhelming technical competency, Hong Kong’s students are rarely given the tools to develop their interpersonal and problem-solving skills.
However, Hong Kong’s business leaders aren’t complaining because students are unskilled. Instead, they’re highlighting that graduates are unbalanced, and unable to combine their technical talents with crucial social and collaborative skills. Rather than nurturing an independent, functional and socially responsible mindset in students, Hong Kong’s education system continues to fixate on academic results over individual development and social skills.
The result of such an ossified education system is that high school and graduate students are unprepared for the future and lagging behind on the world stage. A paper recently published by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) expounded that the happiness and success of students are not mutually exclusive ideas, indicating that the framework within which education is facilitated and supported is just as important as the curriculum itself.
The way to break the educational mold for Hong Kong’s education system, then, might lie in “smart schools” initiatives currently being pioneered by various countries across the globe. Australia is an early adopter, where schools like Sydney’s Anzac Park Public School teach mathematics using coding programs in a bid to increase testing scores and equip children for the job market. Or take the smart school being built in the Russian city of Irkutsk, which seeks to blend the latest trends in responsible architecture (it was designed by a Danish studio) with gearing education towards a socially responsible model. According to Mark Sartan, the general director of the project, the school is meant to work with the UN’s agenda for sustainable development.
Such smart schools could be a model for Hong Kong and its high number of “economic orphans” – children whose parents are forced to send them to orphanages due to a severe lack of economic resources. The Irkutsk Smart School for example is based on a model of socially responsible education, and is designed to alleviate social problems such as unacceptable living conditions for orphaned children. To that end, the school has a specially built housing complex for foster families. In a place like Hong Kong where many underprivileged children are already living in precarious conditions, a smart school system could provide both a unique education and shelter for those who would otherwise be forgotten.
But Hong Kong could also get some inspiration from Singapore on how to get education and social conditioning right. The city-state has been applying progressive methods for years with high tech facilities, driven teaching staff, future-focused curricula and an emphasis on collaborative learning. With students showing higher motivation and engagement as a result, the education system has helped the second smallest state in Asia become the smartest country in the world.
Ms. Lam’s divisive election comes at a critical juncture for Hong Kong, as students confront a melting pot of autonomy infringements, political skepticism, lowered job prospects and a broken education system. But surrendering Hong Kong’s autonomy and toeing a pro-Chinese educational line is not the only option for Ms. Lam. Using Singapore and the smart school model as guidance, the government can create an education system that gives students the skills and “soulware” needed in today’s changing world. If Ms. Lam forfeits Hong Kong’s educational independence to Chinese policymakers, subsequent generations are set to face even worse learning and working conditions.