One of my students who has emigrated – as, alas, many have – recently brought me a curious present. It was a tin of biscuits from Fortnum & Mason, the British grocery shop for people who think the Harrods Food Halls are middle class. The biscuits were delicious.

The tin, made to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II had a coat of arms on it – not the royal one, a made-up job. If you wound it up by turning the base it also played the British national anthem, God Save the Queen. And this, it seems, is still about as far as patriotic passion gets in the UK these days.

Fortnum & Mason window display London
A Fortnum & Mason window display in London, in the UK. Photo: Herry Lawford, via Flickr.

In Hong Kong we do things differently. I am not sure what a court would make of a biscuit tin which played March of the Volunteers when wound up. But I am sure if such a thing appeared then some government zombie would point out that it “might” be a violation of the national security law.

There are similar differences with regard to flags. The UK has the Union Jack. Flag pedants love to point out that it is strictly only a Union Jack when flown on a jack staff, a small flag pole at the front of a ship. The rest of the time it is the Union Flag. Whatever you call it, it has no legal protection at all, and routinely appears on underwear, supermarket bags, American sports shoes and in other dubious places.

The SAR flag, on the other hand, is a closely guarded virgin of the flag world and may, like the name of the Polytechnic University, only be displayed with permission.

The SAR is now rolling out further innovations which appear a bit on the weird side for those of us raised in places where patriotism was an assumption rather than an aspiration. Students  all eight University Grants Committee-funded universities in the city will be required to undertake some sort of short course on legality in general and the charms of the national security law in particular.

HKU University of Hong Kong
The University of Hong Kong. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Early indications are that this requirement will be met with a variation on e-learning, culminating in a multiple-choice examination which can be graded by a computer. The whole thing can then be run without the intervention of a human brain. The idea behind this seems to be a sort of educational homeopathy, in which a tiny squirt of machine learning cleans and corrects a whole personality.

More exciting is the proposal, outlined in a recent on-line post from the Secretary for Education, for compulsory study tours of mainland China as part of the required subject formerly known as Liberal Studies and now – liberalism being off the menu – known as Citizenship and Social Development.

According to the bureau this will involve the government paying (the tours will be free for the tourists, at least for now) for some 50,000 trips a year. A total of 21 itineraries have been arranged, ranging from three days in Macau to five days in more distant spots like Hunan and Guizhou.

There are some interesting legal questions ahead about this. Will the tours be compulsory for international schools, or for international schools following the local curriculum, or for students in international schools who happen to have chosen the local curriculum rather than the IB? Will they be compulsory for local students who are not Chinese, and may indeed be citizens of countries which specifically advise their nationals against visiting China?

I leave these questions for more legal pens. What bothers me is the practicalities.

Rural guizhou province
Rural Guizhou. File photo: Husonghua via Pixabay.

I should insert here that I have considerable experience of study tours. Early in my career as a university teacher I had a careless moment during an alcohol-fuelled gathering for journalism teachers and hatched a plan with an Australian academic to run a study tour of Queenslend for my students.

This was an insanely expensive ambition but as nobody had, apparently, done such things before my university coughed up a generous subsidy. The students made a splendid video of the proceedings which went down well at the Joint University Programmes Admissions System briefings for some years – although we never managed to do Australia again – and the idea spread to other departments and in due course to other universities.

When my department sprouted an MA course we found there was a well-established price cartel which required us to charge far more than we needed for the programme. So we tagged on an optional but heavily-subsidised week in London, later moved to Prague.

I imported some rules for the conduct of study tours from a course for Scout leaders taking kids on camps which I had attended. One of these was that there should always be at least two adults present, so that in moments of crisis one could go to the hospital, police station, consulate or whatever, while the other could stay with the rest of the group.

This modest requirement was enough to create a permanent shortage so I had several trips to Boston for an annual Model UN and was even roped in once to make up the required number in Shanghai. Of course, I knew nothing of Shanghai and noticed after a few days that the student who had organised the whole thing had arranged for two people to keep an eye on me every day and ensure I did not get bored or, more importantly, lost.

Chinese tour group Filipe Fortes (Copy)
A tour group in mainland China. Photo: Filipe Fortes, via Flickr.

One thing all these trips had in common which will not, I fear, be a feature of the Education Bureau’s brainwave: they were voluntary. All the students attending wished to be there. They might be as interested in the tourism possibilities as the educational ones, but they were volunteers, not conscripts.

The same could be said of the reachers who went along. One of my colleagues managed, by heroic economies, to organise a trip to London for our journalism undergrads. This involved a week in a youth hostel which achieved an ambience somewhere between a Russian barracks and an Iranian prison. It was, though, only two minutes walk from Piccadilly. Nobody complained.

It is difficult to believe that this will be true of the government’s compulsory visits to China.

Let us start with the question of staff. Depending on the ages of the children, prudent organisers arrange a ratio of students to staff. For very small kids the ratio is 2:1, so that, if necessary, each adult can hold a child by each hand. For primary kids when I was doing these things it used to be 6:1. For university students you probably don’t have to worry too much as long as you have the necessary two staff but I think in practice we always ran around 20:1.

Education Bureau
Photo: NowTV screenshot.

This suggests that a reasonable compromise for senior secondary students might be about 12:1. And this in turn means the bureau will need to find some 4,000 teachers every year who are willing – or can be compelled – to go along on one of these jaunts. In my experience this sort of thing is not popular – though I quite enjoyed it – even when the destination was somewhere quite attractive.

Then there is the question of travel and accommodation. Rooms for students in mainland Chinese universities are… well rather along the lines of Piccadilly youth hostels. Boarding schools are, I imagine, even more Spartan. Is the Education Bureau proposing to pay for hotels?

I suppose inter-city travel will be on the high-speed rail network, which should be a boost for national pride. But who is making arrangements on arrival? Many Chinese universities have a department specialising in entertaining visitors. The woman from the relevant department of Fudan University who helped out in Shanghai was wonderful. But the tours will presumably involve more interaction with schools, which are not so well equipped.

The Education Bureau claims that they have lots of cities willing to entertain Hong Kong study tourists. You have to wonder why. Frankly if our government is waving gazillions of dollars around the place for study tours there will be some enthusiastic applicants who are not primarily concerned with education, patriotic or otherwise.

And the results…? People in mainland China have a rather different approach to education from the one traditionally adopted in Hong Kong. It is very solemn, didactic and traditional. No doubt Hong Kong students will be happy to behold the natural and man-made wonders of the mainland but will the experience generate enthusiasm, attraction… or profound relief that Hong Kong still has some differences.

I understand what is being wished for here, but compulsory exercises have a poor record of inducing change, precisely because they are compulsory. Encourage and subsidise visits to the mainland by all means. If they are a requirement they will turn people off.

HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us. Press freedom is guaranteed under the Basic Law, security law, Bill of Rights and Chinese constitution. Opinion pieces aim to point out errors or defects in the government, law or policies, or aim to suggest ideas or alterations via legal means without an intention of hatred, discontent or hostility against the authorities or other communities.

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Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.