As Hong Kong awaits the handover to Chinese rule on June 30, human rights activists fear that teachers are not addressing young people's worries about losing rights under the new regime.
A survey by the Chinese University of Hong Kong found that young people's concerns about freedom and human rights had risen dramatically. Nearly 60 per cent of respondents gave highest value to freedom and human rights compared to 23 per cent in 1995, while the "don't knows" dropped from 50 per cent to 30 per cent.
Yet many teachers avoid such issues in the classroom, preferring to steer away from controversy. Textbooks refer only fleetingly to human rights, democracy and freedom, and there is evidence that teachers need to learn about human rights themselves.
Last year a survey of schools by the human rights organisation Amnesty International found that 50 per cent of teachers favoured bringing back the death penalty in Hong Kong, but only 34 per cent of students agreed. Teachers thought the preservation of 'social order' was more important than human rights.
"I was amazed by the number of teachers who were in favour of the death penalty being introduced. There are public executions in China where people are shot by firing squads. Is that what we want to see in Hong Kong?" said Dr Chan Pui Kai of the Higher Institute of Education.
Angela Li, Amnesty's education officer, said that her organisation had originally thought that it needed to educate the students but had concluded that the teachers were a higher priority.
For the past two years Amnesty has been visiting schools under a project funded by the Norwegian government to help pupils understand about their rights.
"Human rights must be an issue in the school so that schools know that it is important for the children's own self-development and not just because of the handover," said Miss Li.
She finds students interested in the issues. But when a four-day course on human rights education was offered to trainee teachers at minimal cost late last year there were few takers. Institutes of Education have included some human rights modules in their courses, but only since 1995.
New guidelines from the education department which come into effect in September say teachers should 'promote critical thinking' on rights, but an exam-orientated education system leaves little scope for discussion topics. Current textbooks are also weak in this respect.
Lee Wing On of Hong Kong University examined a number of textbooks as part of an international project on civic education. "We found democracy and human rights are not substantially taught in the Hong Kong curriculum," he said.
Textbook authors say they are hampered by publishers who do not want anything controversial that would slow down government approval of texts. But many educationists note that until the 1990s the colonial government did not want such issues discussed, fearing it would lead to demands for independence.
Teachers brought up in that era, now nervous about the handover to Chinese rule, see no reason to change.