2012 marked the important fifteenth anniversary of when Hong Kong’s sovereignty was transferred back to China after having been under British rule for the past ninety-nine years. However, the “Return” or the “Handover”, as it has been dubbed, unintentionally asked the question of whether Hong Kong would shed its vestiges as a former British colony and embrace its new identity under Beijing rule or if its Chinese heritage was ironically too foreign to ever be truly embraced and adopted.

Image courtesy of Remko Tanis, © 2012, some rights reserved

The student protests in Hong Kong that erupted as the final days of summer came to an end illustrate the conflict between the city’s aspirations to continue in an autonomous fashion and China’s desire to re-establish control after almost a century. The nine-day demonstrations and hunger strikes were over the state’s decision to implement a “national education” that students, teachers, parents, and citizens alike deemed to be a form of indoctrination. The program was targeted at young children in primary schools and would eventually be made compulsory by 2016. In essence, Pro-Beijing ideals would be introduced and institutionalised in Hong Kong as a means of inspiring a new generation of Chinese patriots. Protesters lashed out against the idea and instead employed the term “brainwashing” in response, claiming that the values taught in school would advocate those espoused by the Chinese Communist Party and were at odds with the civic liberties the city has previously enjoyed.

In the end, the program faltered after the number of protestors swelled to over tens of thousands. So instead, as a compromise, the decision to introduce the program would be entirely left to the individual schools in Hong Kong rather than being implemented in the whole region. The change from compulsory to voluntary was still perceived as an affront to the city’s liberties since some schools rely on government aid. Any influence or even the potential to be influenced would not be tolerated.

The act of backing down and offering a watered down version may seem to be out of character, but historically Hong Kong has always been the exception to the rule. The city was granted the unique position as a “Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China”. In other words, it is Chinese territory in name only and has the right to its own political and capitalist system. The removal of the “national education” element from the curriculum demonstrates that the “One Country, Two Systems” idea might have been a little too effective and maybe ought to include the idea of “One Country, Two Futures” in brackets, since Hong Kong doesn’t appear to have any wish to be monitored. Patriotism is a complex sentiment that ought to be spontaneously felt by its citizens and cannot thus be taught alongside biology or literature in school.

The educational system is the best forum to demonstrate the differences between the former colony and the rest of the state’s populous cities. Teachers in Hong Kong enjoy a luxury that their counterparts in China don’t, owing to the fact that they can openly criticise policies made by the government as well as instruct their pupils of some of the darker elements of the country’s history. The most traumatic event was the student massacre during the protests of 1989 when young people took to the streets to openly demand a change towards a pro-democratic system. The shadow cast by this event seems to be felt by the students in Beijing who could not publicly demonstrate in a manner that the students in Hong Kong did. Even the failed attempt of Chinese students protesting outside of the Japanese embassy in Seoul on September 20th over the conflict of disputed islands in the East China Sea illustrates the reason behind Hong Kong’s successful outcome. The failure was not due to the fact that the Chinese students were fewer in number and only had dozens to back their cause, but because they resorted to the use of old-fashioned banners to convey their message and outrage. It is ironic to think that the ultimate symbol highlighting the differences between these two protests in 2012 was the multitude of Apple products being wielded by the tech savvy Hong Kong students who enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the Northern hemisphere and are very much part of a forward thinking, capitalist and Western culture.

Hong Kong has been vocal in its desire to establish a democratic form of government that would be completely at odds with the notion of a single party system, as has been the case in China for the past few decades. In this state, Communism did not fail alongside the Soviet Union but instead flourished and adapted to the new challenges of the 21st century. The protests over the “national education” program occurred in the summer as the city was going to the voting polls to decide which persons would be elected onto the Legislative Council on September 9th. The seven million people who inhabit the island may choose their legislative body but, on the other hand, they have no choice where the appointment of the chief executive, currently the Beijing backed Leung Chun-ying, is concerned. This system will actually fuel tension between the pro-democracy and the pro-Beijing parties.

On the fifteenth anniversary of the “Hand Over”, President Hu Jintao declared his hopes to reintegrate Hong Kong more effectively into the Chinese fold thus fully completing the reunification process. However, the desire for independence will not die. In 1997, there was a mention of a promise of universal suffrage once fifty years had elapsed. This aim was another compromise to the people of Hong Kong, but many fear that it is too late to ever be fully reunified with China.

This almost utopian dream of a “Chinese democracy” may one day materialise in another fifteen or fifty years, but until then, Hong Kong will remain fettered to its parent state like a naughty child.