LIFTING a decades-old taboo on teaching about post-1949 China, Hong Kong's government is revising its curriculum to give secondary school students their first lessons on the communist regime that will rule them from 1997. Academics agree on the urgent need to prepare Hong Kong youths for China's takeover of the British colony, less than seven years away. But they differ sharply on how to do so.
Since Beijing suppressed popular protests for democracy in June 1989, liberal educators have lobbied for courses on modern China and the West that would strengthen the political literacy of youths and promote a more representative system of government in Hong Kong.
In contrast, conservative Hong Kong education authorities, eager to ensure a smooth transition to Chinese rule, are promoting uncritical courses aimed at increasing students' patriotism and identity as future citizens of the People's Republic of China, local academics say.
Trapped in the middle of the debate are Hong Kong's teachers, who say they bear the burden of deciding how to present the controversial new courses broadly outlined by the revised curricula. Many seek to emigrate before 1997 or decline to teach the new courses.
``Schools are having difficulty finding teachers'' for planned courses on communist China, said one Hong Kong educator.
``When you teach post-1949 history, you are basically discussing the current regime. Teachers fear that they may say something that will be taken against them later on,'' said the educator, requesting anonymity.
As a result, Hong Kong school children could still remain ignorant of major events in China.
For generations, children here have created images of the vast country across the border not from textbooks, but from the often frightening stories told by refugee parents and grandparents over dinner-time bowls of rice.
``When I was in school, I didn't learn anything about post-1949 China, and everything I heard outside was extremely negative,'' says a Hong Kong secondary school teacher.
For more than 40 years, the British administration kept modern Chinese politics out of textbooks and classroom discussions in an attempt to minimize Beijing's influence in the colony.
The government ``pretended that the history of communist China didn't exist,'' says Paul Morris, dean of the University of Hong Kong's faculty of education. ``It was apoliticization at all costs.''
Until the late 1960s, high school instruction on Chinese history was dry and dynastic, ending with the fall of the Qing Dynasty 1911. Later, it inched forward to include the early years of the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek, but stopped abruptly at the 1949 communist revolution.
Today, the government is belatedly lifting the taboo.
A newly revised Chinese history curriculum for high school students, scheduled to begin in 1994, will cover China's internal politics from the foundation of the People's Republic in 1949 to the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Topics for study will include Mao's Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and Great Leap Forward (1958-60), a radical push toward industrialization that precipitated a nationwide famine in which Western demographers say tens of millions of people perished.
A new social studies program on contemporary China will give high school students their first opportunity to survey Beijing's legal and educational systems and modernization drive in the 1980s. Promoted by progressive educators, the program, called China Today, is scheduled for inauguration in 1992.
Already, however, school teachers jittery about the return to Chinese control are voicing reservations over the new materials. Two-thirds of secondary schools surveyed recently indicated they would not introduce the China Today program in 1992, Hong Kong's South China Morning Post reported.
Even teachers unafraid of discussing Communist Party policy say they feel hindered by their own ignorance and the dearth of accurate historical data.
``The Chinese government refuses to divulge what is going on, so we can't know the facts,'' says a Chinese history instructor, who plans to teach the new courses.
Hong Kong education authorities are taking steps to ensure that the new courses do not offend Beijing.
Critics charge that Education Department, in violation of its own ban on political education, has used its control over syllabuses and school textbooks to slant the new material in favor of the communist regime.
For example, a new social studies syllabus drafted by the Education Department instructs junior high pupils to ``name a few outstanding figures of the Communist Party of China and their contributions to the rise of the party.''
The Education Department has also ordered revisions of textbook facts on the Korean War, Sino-Soviet relations, and maps of Tibet and Mongolia that conflicted with China's official propaganda, according to textbook publishers and authors cited by Dr. Morris.