On 13 March 2017, an annual working report of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Standing Committee mentioned the need for resolute opposition to independence and promote national education in schools. In response, Hong Kong educators and youths feared a repackaged version of national education (德育及國民教育) touted in 2012 to nurture patriotism but scrapped after 10 days of protests.
Hong Kong curriculum already contains national education
The Basic Law and national identity are already included in the General Studies curriculum in primary education. The Moral and Civic Education framework also has room to achieve the same goal. It then appears CPPCC’s call for strengthening national education is not only a reaction to the rise of separatist thought in Hong Kong, but it also resurrects the derailed controversial national education curriculum in 2012.
Contextual meaning of “China” as a country
What “national” means is never clearly defined in the national education curriculums. The Chinese word for “country,” 國家 (kwok ka) encompasses concepts of country, nation and state. “Country” might denote a geographical location, “nation” ethnicity and culture, and “state” being ruling power. When 國家 is used interchangeably, distinctions become blurred. This matter becomes even more problematic in Hong Kong’s context.
A nation as an ‘imagined community’
In Benedict Anderson’s famous work Imagined Communities (1983), he traced the origins of nationalism to 18th century Europe. Anderson defined a nation as “an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” A nation “is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion“.
The concept of kingdom prior to nation-states
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, there were no concept of “nation”. Europe was ruled by kings who fought over territories for control. Allegiance to the king was the main identification of citizenry and means of protection. Most people did not venture outside of their kingdoms and travelling did not require passports, as there were no physical borders between kingdoms. People understood themselves to be their king’s subjects.
The Chinese state as an imperial empire
The situation was similar in China. China was not known to be a “nation”. China was an empire ruled by successive lines of emperors who called themselves “Son of Heaven.” A Chinese person swore allegiance to the emperor, and may refer to himself as a subject of the Great Tang Empire, for example. Concepts of Chinese “ethnicity” did not emerge until much later in the late 19th century, from increasing European contact.
The spread of national consciousness
Back in Europe, the invention of the printing press allowed mass printing of books in the vernaculars, such as English, French, German, etc. Prior to this, the lingua franca of Europe was Latin, a language spoken by intellectuals. With the printing press, books in the vernaculars began spreading nationalistic thoughts. A southern French farmer may now read about what life was like in Paris, a symbol for modern French identity.
The birth of modern Chinese nationalism
Nationalism led to European wars and colonial expansion. As Europe prepared for war in early 20th century, governments issued passports to citizens to identity friend from foe. Nationalism was at its height in Europe. Meanwhile in China, it had just witnessed humiliating defeat by European powers, including ceding of Hong Kong to Britain. China realized that it must become a strong modern nation. Modern Chinese nationalism was born.
The story of Chinese nation-building shows how China had transformed from empire to modern nation-state. Successive governments – the Qing Empire (1644-1911), Republic of China (1911-1949) and Peoples’s Republic of China (1949-present) – had continuously re-defined “China.” Within this narrative, Hong Kong occupies an important position in transforming China. This study of the Chinese consciousness should be the very root of “national education” in Hong Kong.