A pro-democracy activist and his newly-founded group Education Breakthrough have set up an online archive dedicated to highlighting what they describe as politically motivated changes to Hong Kong school textbooks aimed at showing China in a better light.

The move follows a decision by the Education Bureau to conduct a voluntary screening programme, under which the publishers of six Liberal Studies textbooks submitted them to the government for a review of the contents. Those books which receive official approval are included on a recommended list for schools and parents.

Diocesan Girls’ School. File photo: Exploringlife, via Wikimedia Commons.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam has cited what she calls problems with the teaching in schools of Liberal Studies, a subject blamed by some critics for inciting students to join last year’s mass street protests .

According to the activist Isaac Cheng, one of the publishers – British company Pearson – withdrew from the review led by the Education Bureau, which recommended edits to some material.

“The edits are largely political. The depiction of the Chinese political regime shall not be negative,” the activist said, describing his website as a “brainwashing textbooks archive.”

For instance, in the Technology and the Environment module, Cheng said Chinese pollution problems addressed in older editions of textbooks were entirely removed in books approved by the review committee. Text on political corruption and official misconduct was changed to focus on the Chinese government’s improvements in policymaking in response to the shortcomings.

Content sanitised

HKFP selected some examples of Liberal Studies textbooks published by the Hong Kong Educational Publishing Company, which is indirectly owned by Beijing’s Liaison Office in the city. It investigated how the description of political events involving China had changed in the updated and recommended version.

A chart showing “mass incidents” – large-scale social unrest in China – was cut to half its original length. Incidents removed include the 2011 protests in Zhili in Zhejiang province triggered by a doubling of taxes which prompted the burning of police cars; violence in 2014 in Maoming in Guangdong due to a protest against a chemical factory, prompting the authorities to halt the project; and a wave of demonstrations in the early 1990s sparked by restructuring and layoffs at state-owned enterprises.

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Among the incidents still listed are:

  • Protests in 2011 in Guangdong’s Wukan by thousands of villagers angry at local officials for selling their land cheaply to developers.
  • Demonstrations in 2016 in Jiangsu by thousands of citizens against the building of a nuclear waste plant.
  • A dispute between a migrant worker and officials in Zhejiang province over his temporary residence permit application. His arrest sparked large-scale conflict.
  • Demonstrations and clashes with police at Shipai in Dongguan after a Hong Kong-owned factory closed down unexpectedly and management disappeared without paying wages to workers for two months.
Photo: Education Breakthrough.

Among other textbook changes, an infographic entitled “Symptoms of China’s ‘urban disease'” was renamed “Urbanisation in China”. Some negative factors were removed and positive developments were added.

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In another graphic about the dilemma faced by overseas Chinese students on whether to return home from the US, the benefits of remaining in America and the shortcomings of China were all removed from the updated edition. The students’ decision not to return was replaced by an open question.

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In a case study of the plight of sweatshop workers under global capitalism, a cartoon originally set in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou was later updated to change the venue to unidentified “developing countries”. The protagonist – a female sweatshop worker – called Xiaojuan in the old edition was changed to a hijab-wearing lady called Merina.

The original cartoon put into context China’s role as the world’s factory under economic globalisation, and the frequent exploitation of workers from the countryside. Xiaojuan is a country girl who seeks a job in Guangzhou and ends up working at an electric appliance factory. Overtime working and the lack of protective equipment causes her to get sick, yet she receives only a small sum in compensation and is told not to complain to the management.

Cheng said the original intention of the Liberal Studies curriculum in Hong Kong high schools was to diversify teaching materials and develop critical thinking. By setting up a textbook review committee, the education authority was directing schools to select its preferences, he said.

“Gradually what is written in textbooks will be assumed to be facts for our future generations.”

Isaac Cheng. Photo: Demosisto, via Facebook.

Cheng said his archive aims to highlight issues which may otherwise be taken for granted as facts, as well as raising public awareness of what he called politically-motivated editing.

Education Breakthrough will continue updating the archive to include textbooks on different subjects at various levels, such as primary school general studies, he said.

“We hope parents and schools can be more selective and make informed choices when selecting textbooks.”

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Rachel Wong

Rachel Wong previously worked as a documentary producer and academic researcher. She has a BA in Comparative Literature and European Studies from the University of Hong Kong. She has contributed to A City Made by People and The Funambulist, and has an interest in cultural journalism and gender issues.