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23 Sep 2019 15:00
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  •   Home > News > International

    Hong Kong school students join pro-democracy protests, prompting criticism of curriculum

    Students are joining demonstrations across Hong Kong, prompting criticism from some that the curriculum is radicalising the city's youth, while others lament the "heavy burden" the children are shouldering.

    Valerie and her classmates from the elite Maryknoll Convent School have formed a human chain at the school gate.

    With arms linked, they chant "stand with Hong Kong, fight for freedom".

    Valerie, 14, is fresh faced and wears her hair in pigtails.

    She likes drawing and public speaking and thinks she would like to be a lawyer when she grows up.

    With her perfect English, spoken in an American accent, she sounds like any Western teenager.

    Except at 14, Valerie not only understands what democracy means, she is fighting for it.

    Since protests erupted earlier this year, high school students like Valerie have taken part in demonstrations across Hong Kong, expressing their own fears about Beijing's incursions on their rights.

    "It's for the future of Hong Kong, for the future of our country," she said.

    But students' involvement in demonstrations has seen increased scrutiny of Hong Kong's school curriculum, which some claim is radicalising the city's youth.

    School subject blamed for students' 'over-enthusiasm'

    Pro-Beijing politician Priscilla Leung is among those critical of Hong Kong's schools.

    In particular, the barrister and academic has taken aim at liberal studies, a subject compulsory for any high school student who wants to attend university.

    "Liberal studies is one of the causes that has led to the over-enthusiasm of our young kids in current politics," Ms Leung said.

    She is also critical of some school teachers, who she claims "fail to offer an objective view" and inject their own political viewpoints into the classroom.

    "Young people, we all know, are rebellious … and they want to criticise everything," she said.

    "But they don't have enough [of a] firm theoretical and knowledge base to make a very objective analysis [about] what's going on in Hong Kong."

    According to curriculum documents, liberal studies is designed to help Hong Kong students become independent and critical thinkers.

    It stands in contrast to the intellectual climate of mainland China, where the internet is censored, the Government controls the media and school lessons are heavily patriotic.

    One broad liberal studies learning outcome is "to evaluate different aspects of life in Hong Kong with respect to the rights and responsibilities of individuals, social groups and the government".

    There are also modules called "Hong Kong today" and "modern China".

    'Hong Kong's future is also my future'

    Maryknoll student "Grace" has been leading the morning's chanting.

    She seems keenly aware of the civic freedoms she enjoys as a Hongkonger, compared to those living in mainland China.

    "[We] don't get arrested for what we have said," she says.

    Grace will be 44 years old when Hong Kong finally merges with China in 2047, when the 50-year transition period known as "one country, two systems" expires.

    "I'm only 16 but I'm going to be an adult in two years and I think Hong Kong's future is also my future," she says.

    "I have to protect my whole future and protect the next generation's future."

    Lau Kam Fai, the president of Hong Kong's Liberal Studies Teachers' Association, said it was not fair to blame the subject for sparking student protests.

    In fact, Mr Lau said his students were at times more realistic than the protesters.

    "One of the demands is about universal suffrage and [my students] say this one is the least possible," Mr Lau said.

    "It's not politically feasible."

    Mr Lau rejects the idea liberal studies teachers instruct students about which political system is better when comparing China and Hong Kong.

    "They don't do the comparison. They just say in Hong Kong, the system is like this, then the Chinese one is like this. But there is no such thing as, which is better," Mr Lau said.

    He said liberal studies was crucial in a world where young people are heavily influenced by what they read online via their social media feeds.

    It's a subject that reinforces media literacy, he said.

    "If you click in the internet there are many different kinds of news … you can't tell whether it's right or not," Mr Lau said.

    "So I would like [students] to have the skills to discern which is correct and which is not."

    Alumni join demonstration to help shoulder 'burden' on children

    Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Maryknoll students are alumni, including 28-year-old "Caitlyn".

    An office worker, she attended the early morning demonstration because it was a peaceful way to protest and support the students.

    "Most of us when we were students we didn't really have to think about political things, it didn't really affect our lives," Caitlyn said.

    "For these youngsters, it's not fair for them to have such a heavy burden at such a young age.

    "It's also proof that they are real Hong Kong citizens, they understand their own responsibility in the society."

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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