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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Classes Stir Debate

Jul. 2, 2015

Authorities in Hong Kong put on a show Wednesday to celebrate the 18th anniversary of the territory’s return to Chinese rule. But tens of thousands of people took the opportunity to stage a rally calling for more democracy. Students were prominent among the protestors, just as they were a year ago at the start of what became known as the Umbrella Revolution. We look at some of the reasons the young generation is so politically active.

NHK World’s Takuma Yoshioka tells us how schools are teaching teenagers to find their voices and debate important issues.

Demonstrators crowded into central Hong Kong. Young people wanted their leaders to know they’re not happy with the electoral system.

18-year-old Agnes Chow was among them. The university freshman says it was a class at secondary school that got her interested in politics. A course called “liberal studies” taught her to question conventional wisdom, and think for herself about social and political issues. She says the course is really important for students in Hong Kong to understand society and politics.

Education authorities made liberal studies a compulsory subject for all senior secondary students 6 years ago. The classes are designed to be a break from rote learning. Teachers choose a political or social issue, and encourage students to debate.

In one class, the students discuss a proposal to reform the electoral system. The students break into small groups and share opinions. One student says the election reform bill should be put to a referendum. Another says pro-democracy parties would listen to citizens’ opinions, but the pro-China ones wouldn’t.

Students spend about 3 hours a week in liberal studies classes. The teacher says society needs people who are able to think, not just follow instructions. But not everyone supports this style of education. People close to the Chinese government say the lessons stir up political activism.

Academics and education experts took part in a forum to discuss the “liberal studies” class. Agnes Chow was a guest speaker. She had a heated exchange with a senior member of a pro-China party.

The pro-China party member said some people are intent on confronting the Chinese government until their demands are met, but if they take a tough stance, the government is certain to respond with an even tougher one.

Chow responded that a government will not listen to citizens’ voices when there is no democratic system in place. She said the problem lies in the current system that deprives citizens of their rights.

Chow and her generation are committed to taking control of their future. She says changing the current situation is very difficult because the Chinese Communist party is very powerful. But she says it’s important that they remain hopeful and believe in the power of social movement.

Young people in Hong Kong say they won’t give up until their political ideals become reality.

NHK World’s Naoki Makita, who has been covering the anniversary celebrations and demonstrations with Takuma Yoshioka, joins Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu from Hong Kong.

Shibuya: Naoki, we heard in the report that pro-Beijing people are not happy. They’re not happy with this liberal studies class. So how are students in Hong Kong still able to take this class?

Makita: It’s because of the one-country, two-systems policy. Hong Kong’s leaders have a great degree of autonomy in areas other than defense and diplomatic affairs. So they’re relatively free to set their own education policies. The liberal studies course was created to move away from the style of education that’s based on cramming knowledge into students’ heads.

Beppu: We understand that Hong Kong has an education system that allows or even encourages young students to take an interest in politics. But behind it, don’t you think...?

Makita: Young people in Hong Kong are worried about the power of the Chinese Communist Party, in terms of the economy, politics, and even the way people think. One expert on education told me there’s a significant gap in thinking between young people and the older generations.

Leung Yan Wing an Associate Professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education says "The younger generation who are more concerned with post-material values, the percentage is higher. But when they put these kinds of values to look at China, they find that there are so many problems there. What the youth now, they are seeing China and they would like to see a more liberal China, a China which have more respect of human rights, etc."

And I think Hong Kong’s education system is one of the things affecting this gap in thinking. Young people are encouraged to take part in free debate, and that’s making them more interested in political activities.

Beppu: But despite what these young campaigners might be learning in school, don’t you think that it’s going to difficult for them to get what they want?

Makita: Well, last month, students and pro-democracy activists managed to get an election reform bill voted down at the legislature. The bill would have effectively barred candidates critical of China from standing for chief executive. But there’s not much chance they’ll see their ideal democratic system put in place anytime soon.

On the other hand, Hong Kong’s economic ties with China are getting stronger and stronger. Last year, about 47 million mainlanders visited Hong Kong. That’s more than 6 times the city’s population. There’s a high-speed train network under construction that will link China and Hong Kong, and make it much faster to travel between the two. So Hong Kong is likely to depend more and more on mainland China for economic growth.

And that’s why many people are taking a pragmatic view that rather than confronting China. They say Hong Kong can piggy-back on China’s growth. Nearly 2 decades on, people in the city are still torn between their ideals and reality.