In Hong Kong, most junior secondary students study not one but two history subjects: one is History which refers to western history and world civilisations and the other is Chinese History which covers 5,000 years of Chinese history and civilisation. However, both History and Chinese History are not the most popular elective subjects for Secondary 6 students who sit for the Diploma for Secondary Education (DSE) examination. In 2017, out of a total of 61,000 DSE students, around 5,700 (9.3%) and 6,300 (10.3%) students took History and Chinese History respectively — much fewer than the number of students who chose other humanities subjects like Geography and Economics.
Since 2014, the Hong Kong government has been reviewing the curriculum for both subjects. In September 2020 the revised curriculum frameworks will be implemented from Secondary 1. According to the revised curriculum framework for History, the development of Hong Kong is added. Ancient, modern and contemporary Hong Kong history will be covered with an emphasis on the cultural heritage of pre-colonial Hong Kong, politico-socio-economic developments during the British colonial period, and the relationship between Hong Kong and China.
For Chinese History, the revised curriculum framework provides slightly more room for the teaching and learning of the socio-cultural history of China, besides its political history. Instead of making it a separate topic, Hong Kong will be studied from the perspective of its relationship with China during the modern and contemporary period as mainland Chinese authorities always considered it an inseparable part of China regardless of British colonial rule between 1841 and 1997.
Similar to the revised History curriculum, there is a major shift of teaching and learning from ancient to modern and contemporary periods of China. While it is expected to arouse students’ interest by enabling them to relate modern and contemporary Chinese history to the latest reforms and developments undertaken in China since 1978, some contentious issues like the 1989 June Fourth Incident and the 1967 Hong Kong’s anti-colonial riots are not mentioned in the new curriculum guideline.
The government insists that the new curriculum guidelines for both subjects will enable students to study Chinese and world history and culture in a more holistic and systematic manner and thus develop a sense of national identity. Without doubt, this review was carried out at a time when Hong Kong has been facing socio-political upheavals.
The central government in Beijing keeps pressing the Hong Kong government to implement national education more thoroughly, together with making the singing of national anthem and flag-raising (for both national and Hong Kong SAR flags) ceremony in schools compulsory in order to cultivate among youngsters a stronger sense of national belonging.
On the other hand, Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, the largest teachers’ union which is affiliated with the pro-democratic camp in the territory, is more concerned about the impact of excluding controversial historical events in the curriculum. This might mean that the responsibility of teaching these topics will probably be shouldered by textbook publishers and teachers.
Further, it is believed that teachers will not spend much time on these controversial historical topics for they are not included in the revised curriculum. As a result, students will be deprived of an opportunity to study contentious historical issues in schools.
In October 2017, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced in her first Policy Address that Chinese History would be made a compulsory subject for all junior secondary students from Secondary 1 progressively from September 2018. Instead of creating a new subject of Moral and National Education in schools, there is consensus in the society that Chinese History as an independent subject can arouse students’ consciousness of being Chinese and thus strengthen students’ sense of national belonging.
Nevertheless, most teachers resist against any form of political interference in the teaching of both History subjects, which should be immune from being influenced by political forces to become a tool of “brainwashing” and “political propaganda.” Therefore, apart from revising the curriculum frameworks, more things need to be done like providing sufficient specialised teachers for both subjects together with encouraging improved pedagogy, which should go beyond spoon-feeding and rote-learning. The ultimate aim is to equip students with self-learning and critical thinking skills to assess, analyse and interpret history, including controversial issues, without hindrance and distortion.
Dr Michael Lee is a lecturer in the Department of History at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His research interests include comparative education, higher education and the history of Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia.