Separatism in Hong Kong rose out of 150 years of colonial brainwashing, the former Hong Kong director of state news agency Xinhua has said.

In an interview in Beijing with public broadcaster RTHK, Zhou Nan said that he was not surprised by the appearance of separatist thought in Hong Kong, after 150 years of “colonial brainwashing” during British rule. Around four or five generations of Hongkongers were brainwashed, the 90-year-old Zhou claimed in the exclusive interview published on Monday.

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Zhou Nan. Photo: Screenshot/RTHK.

“One generation of young people after another received colonialist education… they have been brainwashed to the bone by colonialism.”

Zhou was the director of the Xinhua news agency in Hong Kong – the central government’s de facto representative office during British rule – from 1990 to 1997.

As a solution to the rise of separatist thought, he proposed strengthening national education for young people.

“It would be wrong to continue to oppose [national education] – then you would be continuing to force them to undergo colonial brainwashing, and depriving the new generation of young people of the right to learn about the history and situation of their native country. This should not happen. This should not be allowed to happen.”

In 2012, the government attempted to introduce the Moral and National Education program, which was scrapped after days of large scale protests at government headquarters. Critics said it was an attempt to brainwash Hong Kong’s youth.

In an interview with RTHK’s English-language program Newswrap, Yuen Chan of the Parents Concern Group on National Education responded to Zhou’s remarks, calling them “tone-deaf” and “hyperbole.”

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Student-led protests against national education in 2012. File Photo: Wikicommons.

“I don’t know what to what extent does he know the mood among young people in Hong Kong today, but from what we can see, strong-arm tactics tend not to work,” she said. “And the more that the central government or the SAR government in recent years has tried to push this kind of national education or… pushing patriotism in a very strong-armed way, the more there is pushback and the reaction has tended to not be positive from young people.”

She said that forcing incoming chief executive Carrie Lam to “carry out a political mission” by implementing national education would put Lam in a very difficult situation, and would not be conducive to mending rifts in society, as Lam has promised to do.

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.