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Liberty, equality, compromise

Is civic education just a way of softening up young people as Chinese rule looms? Jane Camens reports

It is one of the first hot weekends of the last full summer under British rule. Beneath a bronze likeness of Queen Victoria, children in a Hong Kong park chase each other around in circles.

Opposite the park colourful bunting invites passers-by in through a gate where young people are being groomed, in line with an education department scheme, to develop a sense of belonging to Hong Kong and China. The idea is to make them ready "to contribute to the betterment of society, the state and the world".

The flags welcome visitors to an open day at Queen's College, a secondary school which has embraced a whole-school approach to teaching civic awareness. It has won many inter-school competitions for its civic education and is considered a model example of how to impart the values upheld by the government.

According to school principal Lee Kar-hung, the Queen's College civic education programme is consistent with new guidelines endorsed by the curriculum development council a fortnight ago. The guidelines will be issued to all secondary and primary schools before the summer break for implementation in the new academic year, spanning the handover of Hong Kong back to China.

The education department hails the guidelines as a means to encourage young people to think more critically, analytically and creatively. Cynics maintain that the government is teaching young people to be good citizens under a communist-led system.

Queen's College head prefect Chiang Mung, aged 19, was greeting guests. "It is my great pleasure to show you our civic education display," he said, embodying the recent theme on which the school's civic education programme has focused - courtesy.

Mr Lee explained that the school has adopted three main themes, which they call the ABC.

"A stands for alma mater, which is about developing a sense of belonging to the school and community," Mr Lee said.

"B is for brotherhood, and means boosting team spirit. C is for courtesy. "

A tour with Chiang Mung demonstrated that the pupils have embraced the spirit of joining together. One section, for example, displaying student calligraphy, showed a poster proclaiming (as translated by Chiang Mung): "We have to unite our forces to clean the campus to create a better study environment."

There was little evidence, though, of any independent, analytical, or critical thinking in the exhibition. There was certainly nothing that demonstrated any concern for the workings of government or contentious issues of the day.

The civic education guidelines aim to help young people understand the importance of democracy, liberty, equality, human rights and the rule of law. However, they also claim "to help students understand the special features of the Chinese culture, identify with the noteworthy aspects of the Chinese culture, and strengthen their esteem for it".

"No one would oppose democracy," the guidelines say, "but the interpretation and explanations of democracy differ greatly between different social groups. " The guidelines warn teachers to be careful in choosing controversial issues, to emphasise consensus, play down conflicts, and avoid topics which might invite "over-emotionality".

The charity Oxfam became an advocate for civic education and a critic of the proposed guidelines after conducting a survey earlier this year of almost 1,000 students. "The school-based approach means the guidelines are likely to be a beautifully-written document without effective implementation," said Chow Wing Hung, Oxfam's education officer.

Oxfam's survey showed that most students learned about social issues from reading newspapers, not from school.

Oxfam proposed that civic education should be because to change poverty Q or any other social problem - people need first to be aware of it.

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