People's opinion is effective agent for change in Hong Kong

People's opinion is effective agent for change in Hong Kong

Protesters have forced a backdown of the 'Moral and National Education' policy, Robin Fitzsimons writes

In a modern democracy, if you want to change government policy, you vote out the government. In Hong Kong, it's different. There the people demonstrate - peacefully. This alternative strategy has had remarkable effects.

On the nights before this month's Legislative Council (Legco) elections, protesters in black T-shirts gathered outside HK government offices to register a resounding ''No'' to mandatory ''Moral and National Education''. An official estimate on one night was 36,000; the organisers said 120,000 citizens were there.

Protesters carrying banners take part in a demonstration march against a Chinese patriotic education course in Hong Kong.

Protesters carrying banners take part in a demonstration march against a Chinese patriotic education course in Hong Kong.Credit:Reuters

''Moral and National Education'' in schools was set to begin, and to be mandatory by 2015. It was seen as ''brainwashing'' propaganda for the Communist Party and a one-party state.

How remarkable then that on the eve of HK's legislature elections on September 9, C. Y. Leung, the newly anointed chief executive, was forced to back down from his mandatory edict. Leung blamed this education policy on the administration of his predecessor, Donald Tsang, when he himself chaired the Executive Council.


The crowds had gathered under the flag of the People's Republic of China flying from HK government headquarters, near to the local Chinese military station. Where else in China would government policy be so massively protested with such impunity? Since China resumed sovereignty over HK in 1997, HK has been part of ''one country, two systems'', with its civic freedoms and rule of law enshrined in its constitution, the Basic Law.

It was a point not lost on the protesters themselves. These were university students and schoolchildren, teachers and parents. Many had travelled from HK's northern New Territories. They made a clear distinction between loving the ''motherland'' and dislike of its government.

So, why did the issue of ''Moral and National Education'' strike such a chord in HK?

First, there was the putative content of the course. Draft syllabus material referred to the ''selflessness'' and ''stability'' in a one-party state and the evil victimhood and suffering in a multi-party democracy. All very, gently, Maoist. The Teachers' Union said it was written with ''political intent''. Then it was discovered that the government had covertly subsidised a Beijing-friendly company to produce this material. Little wonder that these citizens whose grandparents had fled communist China were aghast. Secondly, it was China's President Hu Jintao himself who advised HK chief executive Donald Tsang to press ahead with ''national education''. Tsang agreed. This Beijing interference was a blatant violation of HK's ''high degree of autonomy'', guaranteed by the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.

Thirdly, the protesters were asserting their treasured freedom of expression, and other liberties guaranteed to HK under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

An effect of the national education controversy was to increase the voter turnout in Legco elections from 45 per cent to 53 per cent. This compares favourably with that at recent United States presidential elections (49-57 per cent). Who says HK is not ready for democracy?

Now we have James Packer and Kerry Stokes preaching that Australia must be more ''respectful'' and ''grateful'' to China. Both have huge Chinese business interests - Stokes with Caterpillar tractors, and Packer with gambling palaces in Macau. The Western Australia Premier wants us to defer to China on who should get Australian visas. Out of our own national self-respect, our government and opposition should conspicuously reject these bleatings. The chain of influence is all too obvious. I am having a strong sense of déjà vu. Back in the 1990s, it was the HK tycoonery, reliant on Chinese guanxi and gooodwill for mainland business, who most vehemently opposed Chris Patten's democratic reforms. And it has been the tycoonery, represented by the HK Liberal Party in the functional constituencies, which has allied with left-wing trade unions as the government's most faithful support base ever since.

Take, for example, Vincent Lo, a UNSW graduate, HK construction billionaire, Chongqing cement plant owner, massive developer of prime Shanghai property sites, and serious friend of the Chinese Communist party. Lo led business opposition to Patten's electoral reforms in HK, and continues to resist democratic developments.

Australia and its universities should avoid a kind of economic dependency and strategy which might induce us to compromise our own values and our obligation to support the universality of human freedoms.

Despite the ''democratic deficits'', public opinion has long been an effective ''change agent'' in HK.

In 2003, marches estimated to involve 500,000 people against planned draconian ''anti-subversion'' (i.e. potential censorship) laws led to withdrawal of the legislation, and ultimately to the resignation of the chief executive.

In 1967, devaluation of the HK dollar in line with sterling was reversed within a week, when HK vehemently objected. And earlier this year, the candidacy of the ineffectual and scandal-ridden Henry Tang, Beijing's initial favourite candidate for HK chief executive, collapsed after his support in HK evaporated.

Robin Fitzsimons is a freelance writer.