Hong Kong sees surge of democratic fervor after 'patriotic education' showdown

Hong Kong had the highest turnout in memory for elections yesterday, underscoring its commitment to the 'two systems government' that Beijing agreed to in the 1997 handover.

Bobby Yip/Reuters
Residents walk in front of campaign banners from various candidates for the Legislative Council election campaign in Hong Kong Sept. 9. Hong Kong residents voted for a new legislature on Sunday, a day after the territory's Beijing-backed leader backed down on a plan to introduce a compulsory Chinese school curriculum after tens of thousands of people took to the streets.

Hong Kong’s highest election turnout in years yesterday showed a thriving democratic sentiment in a nation that otherwise doesn’t go to the polls.

The heavy turnout hinged on tumult surrounding a “patriotic” education plan for Hong Kong schools – seen as a proxy for Beijing propaganda – and voter desire to weigh in on the future of the pilot program, which was rejected by all but two of hundreds of schools on the island.

Yesterday’s vote showed political sophistication, analysts say, aided largely by youth, in a vote where bread-and-butter issues like housing and pay figured prominently as well.

Young Hong Kongers spurred a political protest “movement bigger than anything I’ve seen in a long time,” says Michael DeGolyer, who has long studied city politics at Hong Kong Baptist University. “You had 16-year-olds bringing their parents into politics, not the other way around.”

The patriotic education course was aimed at elementary-level students and got heavy criticism for teaching little or nothing about cataclysmic events like the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, or the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Critics branded it “brainwashing.” 

Hong Kong has long harbored a distrust of mainland Beijing’s heavy-handed efforts to “make” Hong Kong a “Chinese” city, even as Hong Kong’s history, civil service, education, and business acumen make it a financial services hub with international characteristics.

After the crippling SARS outbreak in 2003 and efforts by Beijing to institute a “subversion” law that would throttle free expression, Hong Kong’s civic base has steadily mobilized, despite handicaps in the city governing structure, which favors Beijing.

For weeks ahead of the vote Sunday, ordinary people thronged the eastern business district.

In a rare move, pro-Chinese forces in Hong Kong backed down from plans to make the national education mandatory by 2015. At the 11th hour on Saturday word came the plan would be voluntary, though many Hong Kongers were suspicious it could reappear later, an old tactic.

In the scale of problems faced by China this fall, though, Hong Kong may not be at the top of the list.

Beijing’s Politburo undergoes a once-in-a-decade leadership change this fall amid recriminations and turmoil over incidents like the disappearance of Bo Xilai. Its stellar growth rate is in some decline. China is also in the middle of tension-building territory disputes in the South China Sea.

Then there is the sense of disquiet and spiritual hunger among the rank and file, according to Gerard Lemos, who has studied ordinary Chinese people in the heartland since 2007. Any kind of unrest, including that in Hong Kong, tends to trouble China’s leaders, who have long said “stability” is the chief virtue of statecraft.

The patriotic education issue appeared to push voter turnout high enough to give fractious pro-democracy forces enough seats in the legislature (27) to block pro-China forces in coming sessions.

Much credit goes to Hong Kong youth: “I could not believe the organization, the discipline shown by these kids,” Mr. DeGolyer said by phone. “They picked up after themselves, articulated what they wanted, and when they didn’t get everything, they didn’t escalate, which has been the problem in the past, but organized a different way forward. It was astonishing.”

He adds: “If Hong Kong can handle its youth unrest well, then the unrest of youth in China, which we know is growing, may bring the PRC [People's Republic of China] to come here and ask, ‘how are you doing this?’ ”

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