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World: China To Rewrite Hong Kong's History Books

  • Stuart Parrott

Hong Kong, 24 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- With just over three months before Britain returns Hong Kong to Beijing's sovereignty, British and Chinese officials are engaged in a dispute over the future teaching of history in the colony's schools and universities.

The row erupted when the Chinese government said that anything which is "unpatriotic" in Hong Kong's textbooks should be removed.

Mainland officials say that textbooks dealing with China and Hong Kong are "unrealistic" and at odds with history. They say the books give a British colonialist slant on the 150-year development of this territory of 6.4 million, mostly Cantonese people.

Pro-Beijing officials have also charged that Hong Kong's school textbooks treat China as a foreign country and that its history, geography and culture have had little attention.

Chris Patten, the British governor of Hong Kong, hit back by calling on Beijing not to rewrite textbooks to give the version of history favored by the Chinese communist party. In a BBC interview, Patten said that Hong Kong children should learn about both British and Chinese history -- and that nothing should be censored.

Patten said children should be told about Britain's 1840 Opium War against China, regarded as one of the most discreditable episodes in British colonial history. But Patten also said schools should teach children also about two of the bleakest episodes in modern Chinese history: Mao's Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

Historians say the 1958 Great Leap Forward, a bid to increase steel production by the use of backyard furnaces, ended in economic disaster. The 1966/76 Cultural Revolution led to nationwide anarchy as Red Guards attacked those in authority and "capitalist roaders."

Patten also said schools should tell children about "what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989" -- a reference to the bloody army crackdown on students demanding democracy and less corruption.

In a statement widely quoted here, Patten said: "Censorship can't change the history of the world. In a free world, teachers teach all the facts, not those which are politically correct to teach."

In the debate over the teaching of history, Patten's reference to Tiananmen Square touched a sensitive chord in Hong Kong, many of whose people are apprehensive about the handover to China. More than any other single event, the crackdown traumatized the people of this prosperous territory at the mouth of China's Pearl River.

British writer Jan Morris recalls the atmosphere of 1989: "Vast crowds demonstrated against the Chinese Government, something that had never happened before in all the history of the colony, and the whole territory mourned the young activists who had died in Beijing."

She recalls that a statue of Miss Democracy was erected, modeled on the one the Beijing students had made. The city's taxi-drivers sounded their horns for a full minute in elegy.

Many Hong Kongers fear that Tiananmen Square casts grave doubt over China's promise to allow this freewheeling territory to retain its capitalist system and freedoms for 50 years after the handover.

In this atmosphere, the debate over the history textbooks is being watched closely because it is seen as a test of China's good faith. However, critics say the omens are hardly encouraging.

The Chinese government's threat to excise "unpatriotic" material in Hong Kong's textbooks raises a series of questions.

Hong Kong journalist Angelica Cheung writes: "Will the Communist party and its leaders be glorified, as they are in Chinese textbooks? How will the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, when the Nationalists fled to Taiwan, be characterized?"

Cheung adds: "While most of the world regards this as a communist takeover, mainlanders believe it was a 'liberation' led by the savior of the people, Mao Zedong." She says there are other anomalies. China insists it was invaded by Vietnam in 1979, while most countries see things the other way around. And what about Tiananmen Square: was it a pro-democracy movement, as is believed by the rest of the world, or an "anti-revolutionary movement", as Beijing has described it?.

With only 100 or so days before the handover, the debate over textbooks, and censorship, has reinforced the gravity of the change about to hit Hong Kongers. A related question is: will China act to censor Hong Kong's independent and lively media? If it does, ask critics, are China's other guarantees to Hong Kong worth anything?