Necessary Brainwashing: Hong Kong’s Rule of Law

Concerns have arisen about Hong Kong’s autonomy after a senior mainland Chinese government  official described educational changes as “necessary brainwashing”.

The comments raised fears about Beijing’s continued adherence to the tenets of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which set out One Country Two Systems, under which Hong Kong capitalism and individual freedoms remain in place until 2047.  The move also follows other ominous steps: the seemingly unlawful 2008 handover by the Hong Kong government of Tiananmen era dissident, Zhou Yongjun, to the mainland authorities, and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) government’s intervention in a current court case in order to protect a Chinese state owned company.   

Yet while phrases like “brain washing” secure headlines, the reality is more complex.  Hao Tiechuan is Director of the Publicity, Culture and Sports Departments of the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the SAR. What he actually wrote was this:  “Regarding the moral and national education in Hong Kong primary and secondary schools, some people say it amounts to ‘brainwashing’.  But if we look at such systems in Western countries like the United States and France, we will find this kind of ‘necessary brainwashing’ is an international convention.”  Hua is correct; nationalism is an invention of state authorities, in France as much as in China.  Furthermore, Hong Kong’s freedoms are still intact, as the Tiananmen commemoration this coming 4 June will show.

The move is also nothing new.  The introduction of a national education scheme in Hong Kong has been a longstanding aim of the central government. It was accelerated after the 1 July 2003 protests of over one million people (out of a population of about 7.4 million) against the enactment of an anti-subversion law under Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law.  That protest prompted a retreat from the measure, which would have introduced restrictive powers akin to those on the mainland. In March 2005, the Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa resigned, followed in December of the same year by the failure of the passage of a constitutional reform package.  The strength of popular opposition also led to an assessment process in Beijing, which in 2007 concluded that a national educational scheme would instil Hong Kong’s future generations with the requisite loyalty to China and a sounder understanding of the One Country Two Systems regime.  

These latest worries are valid, in part because Hong Kong’s circumstances have changed in the last two decades.  Deng Xiaoping’s logic in 1984 for permitting Hong Kong its freedoms was to afford it space to continue as a trading and financial entrepot, thereby contributing to the modernisation of mainland China.  That importance, though, has faded as the mainland’s own economy has grown.  Hong Kong’s relative importance as a financial centre, too, has diminished thanks to increased competition from Shanghai (and even Shenzen), as well as from Singapore.  Hong Kong’s authorities have worsened this situation by relying on the mainland economy and being complacent about the maintenance of competitive standards, as demonstrated by the willingness of its stock market to rely on mainland auditing standards.  

Taiwan was a second reason - and a further source of concern - for allowing the continuation of freedoms in Hong Kong.  Hong Kong and Taiwan share many features; they are both wealthy, capitalist societies that enjoy the rule of law and political pluralism.  As such, Beijing set out a strategy in which Hong Kong would serve as an example of how reunification need not end autonomy or freedom.  The similarities between Hong Kong’s Closer Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) and Taiwan’s Economic and Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) suggest that mainland policymakers maintain this comparative perspective.  

Yet a corollary to this parallel track is that the democratic process in Taiwan, with all the complications for reunification that it presents, has influenced Beijing’s approach to Hong Kong’s political future.  The 2012 Taiwanese presidential elections are already threatening some turbulence in cross-Straits relations. The Communist Party is particularly conscious that the National People’s Congress has promised that the 2017 elections for the Chief Executive, and the 2020 elections for the Legislative Council, take place under universal suffrage.   Beijing will want this vote to go its way, and a national education campaign could help it do so.  

It is in this context that Hong Kong might fear for its freedoms.  After all, if China’s economy continues to grow as in the last years, few powers would protest if Hong Kong’s citizens voted willingly for a form of guided democracy.