The Hong Kong government vowed on Monday to go ahead with plans to roll out "patriotic" education about China in primary schools this year, following mass protests by parents, teachers, and pupils concerned over possible political "brainwashing" in the formerly freewheeling territory.
While chief executive Leung Chun-ying offered a new round of consultations with parents following protests by an estimated 90,000 people at the weekend, he ruled out any delays to the program, under which all Hong Kong primary and secondary school pupils will receive compulsory "national education" classes by 2016.
"There will be a three-year starting period," Leung told reporters.
"This means that schools, depending on their own situation, can decide to start teaching the subject this year, next year, or the year after the next."
Earlier this month, Hong Kong's Catholic diocese refused to allow the use of one of the program's prescribed textbooks in dozens of primary schools under its jurisdiction following fears that the book will herald a new era of propaganda-style education backed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
The diocese joined a number of religious and charitable educational trusts in rejecting the textbook, meaning that around one third of Hong Kong's 500 primary schools won't teach it, at least in its initial year.
The book, titled The China Model, portrays the Communist Party as "progressive, altruistic and united," re-igniting debate over Beijing-backed propaganda-style education in Hong Kong.
'Core values' ignored
One parent who attended Sunday's protest surnamed Chan said he had his doubts that such classes would help the next generation of Hong Kong children to better understand the country of which they have been a part since the 1997 handover from British rule.
"We think that core values like justice and fairness are not given any treatment," he said.
"We would be very concerned if the concept of direct elections and an elected government didn't form part of citizenship education."
A woman surnamed Wong who attended the march with two young toddlers said children should be raised to think for themselves.
"Children should have their own freedom to consider different versions of an event," she said. "There are a lot of facets to events, and it's not for the government to tell schools to promote any particular version of the 'truth' to them."
"It's no problem for kids to learn about China, but they should learn that there are no human rights in China, and other such material," Wong said.
Hong Kong's high school students, who joined Sunday's march in large numbers in spite of the fact that they will have graduated before the changes take effect, say the territory's schools are now under threat from "brainwashing."
The "national education" curriculum would consist of 50 hours of lessons a year focusing on "building national harmony, identity and unity among individuals".
But parents, teachers, and students alike fear that events like the bloody Tiananmen crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1989 and the mass starvation and extrajudicial killings of Mao's Cultural Revolution will be whitewashed for the younger generation.
Love for the Party
A teacher surnamed Shih said that citizenship education should include discussions about different political systems, not just focus on a narrow patriotism and an unquestioning love for the Communist Party.
"Politics should be included, because it is something that people will come into contact with as part of their role as a citizen," he said.
"Of course they should discuss the rights and wrongs of various events, including the June 4 [massacre] and the [death of veteran activist] Li Wangyang."
The government has said the subject is important to foster a sense of national pride and belonging, however.
"The government definitely does not have the intention to brainwash," said Leung, who this year was chosen by a pro-Beijing committee to govern Hong Kong.
"Schools, teachers, and educational bodies will have a lot of space using professional attitudes and using open methods to teach this subject."
The government announced the formation of a special committee to monitor the implementation of the subject following Sunday's mass protest.
Under the terms of its 1997 handover to China, Hong Kong has been promised the continuation of existing freedoms of expression and association for 50 years.
But journalists and commentators have pointed to a number of outspoken radio personalities who have departed from key political talk shows in the years since the handover of sovereignty to Beijing.
The territory's immigration service has also denied entry to prominent democracy activists and other individuals not approved by Beijing.
In spite of a miniconstitution promising a far higher degree of civil liberty and freedom than is currently enjoyed by Chinese in the mainland, "patriotic education" will be mandatory in all Hong Kong primary and middle schools by 2015.
Journalists say that the Chinese Communist Party has redoubled its ideological work efforts in the territory following mass demonstrations on July 1, 2003 against proposed anti-subversion legislation, which the government later abandoned.
Recent polls carried out by University of Hong Kong have shown that anti-Beijing feeling among the Hong Kong population is running at record levels, while the number of the territory's citizens who identify themselves as "Chinese citizens" is at its lowest level in 13 years.
Reported by Zhou Qianting for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.