Hong Kong and China: One Country, Two Histories

Recent Features

Features | Politics | East Asia

Hong Kong and China: One Country, Two Histories

Two different histories and two different worldviews. Why many Hong Kongers struggle with a national Chinese identity.

Hong Kong and China: One Country, Two Histories
Credit: REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Hong Kong has been propelled into the world’s gaze by a ruling that denies the city true democracy. However, the narrative doesn’t begin with Beijing’s August decision. Rather, it entails two distinct histories: one, a tale of colonialism, liberal capitalism and Western influence, the other the story of a reunified, resurgent and nationalist nation recovering from a century of humiliation.

These two histories, which do not always sit comfortably together, are taught separately in Hong Kong’s schools, serving to make the classroom a microcosm of the wider struggle between Hong Kong values and Chinese nationalism.

The power of education to influence the political consciousness of a society is strong. Hong Kong academic Wai-Chung Ho argues that education is “one of the most direct methods to shape the political culture of a country.” Politicians might disagree on the extent, but most agree education does have a political influence. The last colonial Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, while disputing the role of education in shaping political attitudes, told a researcher at the University of Oxford that “education gives people choices, and it isn’t surprising if they want one of those choices to be who governs them.” Beyond this impact, the content of a society’s education can affect they way people view those choices. In Hong Kong, thousands rallied against the proposed adoption of a Moral and National Education in 2012. They feared an attempt by Beijing to “brainwash” people into support for the nation. If the education curriculum can potentially serve to increase support for the Chinese nation, then what role does it play in engendering a sense of belonging to the ideals being debated in contemporary Hong Kong?

One central way in which the education system can shape the way we view our society is through the study of our shared history. Karina Korostelina, an expert in political psychology at George Mason University in the U.S., argues “teaching about history develops the meanings of current situations and affairs, and plays a major role in the formation of the concepts of the society.” The teaching of the past is difficult enough in any society, but how does Hong Kong, being part of two different stories, go about doing it? Unlike pupils in most schools around the world, students in secondary school in Hong Kong will see history twice on their timetables. Chinese History to teach them about their national past and History to teach them about their local and global story.

In Chinese History, pupils study the long and glorious history of the Middle Kingdom. From the first people to inhabit the China, through the rise and fall of dynasties, to the first half of the 20th century and the mass movements that period produced. Students are taught the basis for their nation, and the foundation for a pervasive nationalism. The Hong Kong Education Bureau’s syllabus makes quite clear that the aim of the subject is in part to “nurture a sense of belonging to the Chinese nation and ethnicity.”

Compare this with the aims of History – a subject that teaches local and global history in English – to “prepare students for citizenship,” “develop values and attitudes in relation to moral, civic, and environmental education,” and crucially “relate the study of the past to contemporary life.” It is in the syllabus of this course that we can see how Hong Kong’s values, variously defined as a commitment to liberty, equality, rule of law, and democracy, are developed and reinforced.

With a colonial foundation and Western inspiration, the History curriculum frames the history of Hong Kong in the development of universal ideals and liberal modernity. In Form 1 (age 12/13) pupils study “Ancient and Medieval Times,” in which they learn of traditional rural life in Hong Kong alongside the birth of European civilization. The syllabus calls for teachers to focus on the “achievements of the ancient Greeks,” one of which is their democratic ideals.

In Form 2, students are taught the “Transition to Modern Times.” With themes like the rise in living standards due to the Industrial Revolution, and the impact of the Enlightenment and French Revolution on the world, they learn about the origins of modernity. The individual is at the heart of these movements, and the modernity that students are being told of is decidedly Western and not all that Chinese.

Form 3 is framed around Hong Kong’s rise “from an entrepot to an international financial center” and this is taught alongside “major global achievements.” This is where Hong Kong students learn about the recent past. The Second World War tells students of how Europe overcame fascism, while the Cold War shows liberal capitalism’s victory over communism. The theme of defeating totalitarianism, when taught as a “major global achievement,” means that when Hong Kongers consider the current Beijing government and its policies towards them they will be forced to view it in relation to their understanding of 20th century Europe.

This is of course just a snapshot of the History curriculum in Hong Kong. If you ask someone in Hong Kong who has just left school what happened in the French Revolution or what were the characteristics of Ancient Greek society, their recall may be rather limited. What remains though, after the facts become hazy, are the ideals that were instilled through this curriculum. The splitting of Hong Kong and China’s histories serves to illustrate how difficult it has been and how difficult it will continue to be to integrate Hong Kong, with a globally informed political view, into a China that is actively seeking an alternative path.

The anger at the Beijing government and fear of its oppressive nature that we have seen in recent weeks is nothing new. In the 1990s thousands packed their bags in fear of the upcoming Handover and left Hong Kong in search of a new home. Some of course always saw themselves as Chinese, and welcomed the resumption of China’s sovereignty over the city. Many however viewed themselves as exclusively Hong Kongers, with values that differed from those in Mainland China.

This division in society lingers. Seventeen years after “One Country, Two Systems,” only 31 percent of people define themselves as Chinese, while 67 percent see themselves as primarily Hong Kongers. This figure is lower than in 1997, but it also represents the latest result in a poll that has seen dramatic swings in both directions. This volatility, along with continued weakness of Chinese identity in the city, speaks to the strength of the conflict in the hearts and minds of Hong Kong people. What is of particular note is that the proportion of those who self-identify solely as Hong Konger is far higher amongst the young. Among 18-29 year olds, who have spent their formative years living in “One Country,” 51 percent have a stronger affiliation to their “System” than to China.

Holding multiple political identities is entirely possible. Someone from New York City can be a proud New Yorker and a proud American with little issue. With the seemingly insurmountable challenge of achieving democracy in Hong Kong, people’s local identity, and the values attached to it, are increasingly clashing with the national Chinese identity. The story of Hong Kong’s development was separate from China’s for more than 150 years, but in the 17 years since reunification these two histories have remained apart. The local values instilled by a Western-inspired global history are resilient, meaning that when the people of Hong Kong were offered universal suffrage with Chinese characteristics, it was the Chinese characteristics they opposed.

Joseph Dobbs is a political researcher based in London. After studying and working in Hong Kong he studied for a postgraduate degree at the University of Oxford, where he researched identity politics. Follow him on Twitter @joseph_dobbs or email him at [email protected]. This article is based on the research project “Identity, Nationalism and History Education in Post-colonial Hong Kong” supported by the University of Oxford.