Hong Kong Apostasy
Court officials were but as rotten timbers, the palace riven by men no better than ravenous beasts grown fat on the imperial coffers. Their ranks were successively renewed by cruel, lupine souls who behaved no better than savage curs. In the pursuit of power, however, they were devotedly slavish in their flattery. Thus, over time, the sacred core of rule was laid waste and the people reduced to the mire.
— from Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Wu Chun Him 胡俊謙 ends his series of interrogations aimed at Kevin Yeung Yun-hung (楊潤雄, 1963-), Hong Kong’s Secretary for Education, with a reference to this passage in Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三國演義, a popular fourteenth-century novel. The seventh and final question that Wu poses to Yeung is:
‘There’s a well-known saying [taken from Romance of the Three Kingdoms] that says: “bad officials are but as rotten timbers” 朽木為官. Are you familiar with it? If not, I suggest you take a look in the mirror!’
Wu is an arts and theatre educator, as well as being a committee member of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. Like other teachers and arts professionals throughout the territory he is confronted with a kind of increased ideological policing that accords with the party-state policies of Beijing.
Education Secretary Yeung has been a prominent, and often clumsy, supporter of the stentorian lucubrations emanating from the Chinese capital:
- He supports the use of Standard Chinese instead of Cantonese in the territory’s schools;
- He has repeatedly called for teachers to prevent students from participating in the 2019-2020 protests;
- He was highly critical of a ‘biased’ history question included in the 2020 Diploma of Secondary Education exam that asked whether Japan did more good than harm to China from 1900 to 1945;
- He wrote to school principals calling on them to discipline students who took part in a union-organised referendum on whether to boycott classes as a protest against the imposition of national security legislation; and,
- He warned principals against allowing students to shout slogans, form human chains, put up posters or sing songs like the new ‘Hong Kong Anthem’.
Readers familiar with our work on patriotic education in the era of Homo Xinensis — see the relevant chapters in Lessons in New Sinology — will be aware that, although ideological ephebes like Kevin Yeung, who only holds a Master of Business Administration from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, may readily baulk at Wu’s pointed questioning. In the PRC proper, however, tens of thousands of low-level teachers and bureaucrats, men and women who are long practiced in the art of historical materialism and dialectical doublethink, would give short shrift to such niggardly challenges. Indeed, as we have observed in the work we have published over the last decades, the Chinese Communist Party’s tireless refinement of an overarching historical and political narrative covering modern China and its place in the world has been of central importance to its enterprise for nearly a century. Hong Kong educators and students alike will, however reluctantly, come to learn that its suffocating embrace is ineluctable.
We offer Wu Chun Him’s feisty objections here, nonetheless, both as a matter of record in the protracted civil war between people in Hong Kong and Beijing, and as an addition to our work on Hong Kong Apostasy.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
16 June 2020
- ‘The Mandela Effect — The Unquiet End of Hong Kong Headliner‘, China Heritage, 24 May 2020
- ‘Schools asked to punish students who boycott classes’, RTHK, 10 June 2020
- ‘Beijing officials denounce class boycott proposal’, RTHK, 12 June 2020
- 曾偉龍, ‘藝發局委員怒斥：朽木為官’, 《蘋果日報》, 2020年6月12日
- ‘人民日報：愛國是本分非選擇 《環時》評《願榮光歸香港》：政治上很惡毒歌曲’, 《立場新聞》, 2020年6月14日
- 李怡, ‘世道人生：愛國與愛港難共存’,《蘋果日報》, 2020年6月15日
Cross-Examining Kevin Yeung
Hong Kong Secretary for Education
Wu Chun Him
As part of my annual teaching program, I offer students introductory guidance in how to appreciate musicals. ‘Les Misérables’ is one of the shows that we study. [Note: ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’, one of the best-known songs from the 1980 show has repeatedly featured during the Hong Kong protests.] As part of that lesson I naturally have to introduce the historical context of the work since it relates to the French Revolution. Although I don’t draw direct parallels to the situation in Hong Kong, I do have, what you would probably call, ‘a hidden agenda’, that is, I encourage students to be aware that through ‘Love’ they can transform not only their own lives but the world as well.
So, my question to you Secretary Yeung is this: by teaching in the above mentioned manner am I pushing the kind of ‘hidden agenda’ that you now want to forbid? What then, exactly, is your definition of our educational aims? Can you reveal the objective benchmarks that you are using and, if not, how exactly do you expect us to comply?
Henceforth, will we be allowed to perform theatrical works based on Chinese history? For instance, can we deal with such themes as the overthrowing of the infamous Tyrant Zhou of the Shang dynasty by King Wu of the Kingdom of Zhou? What about the peasant uprising led by Chen Sheng and Wu Guang against the autocratic Qin dynasty? [Note: Party historiography praises both the unifying rigour of the Qin as well as the righteous rebellion against it.] Then there’s the story about Mao Zedong advocating that Hunan province should enjoy self-determination and announce its independence from the rest of China. What about if we use that as a theme in a production?
Moreover, will we be allowed to depict Sun Yat-sen who, in defiance of the Qing Dynasty Legal Code organised an armed insurrection and, following numerous frustrated attempts at rebellion, contributed to the success of the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 that put an end to the autocratic rule of the Manchu imperial house? According to you, will such topics now be deemed to be freighted with a ‘hidden agenda’ and as such be forbidden and punished by your Department?
It has long since been the case that many areas of pedagogy overlap with topics touched on in arts education. In my own practice, for example, dramaturgy is a useful vehicle for introducing students to many of the key expressions in the Chinese language and in Chinese thought, as well as to such iconic novels as Romance of the Three Kingdoms, along with aspects of literary Chinese and the classics. I have always found such classes to be extremely popular, and they help students further appreciate Chinese history and culture. Let me give you some examples of popular themes:
‘Just as a period of political division gives way to an age of unity, so too does unity eventually give way to division.’ — from Romance of the Three Kingdoms
‘Water can either keep a vessel afloat or sink it.’ — from Xunzi [Note: this famous line is used by the official Chinese media as well as protesters and dissidents to warn of the dangers of going against the will of the people.]
‘The people are of the utmost importance, the Altar of State is secondary and the ruler comes last.’ — from Mencius
Will teachers now be permitted to instruct students in such content, or will they be accused of ‘advocating secession’ or found guilty of ‘subverting the state’?
If we were to extend the above discussion, one would observe that, over the ages, China’s geopolitical territory has proven to be prodigiously flexible. Indeed, there is no particular territory one could reasonably claim that has been intrinsically integral to the Chinese from ancient times. Take, for instance, the territories covered by present-day Hong Kong and Guangdong. None of these were recognised as being part either of the Shang or Zhou periods; furthermore, during the Qin and Han eras [from the second century BCE to the second century CE] neither what is today termed Xinjiang nor Tibet were included in their dynastic sweep. Prior to the Three Kingdoms era [the second and third centuries CE], no political entity extended its control over what is modern-day Taiwan. [Note: It is generally thought that the island now known as Taiwan was relatively untrammeled by outsiders until the sixteenth century.]
Thus, if what is claimed as ‘previously possessed’ is what is really meant by the theory about the ‘inalienable Chinese territory since ancient times’, then surely Vladivostok and Sakhalin, now part of Russia, should by all rights be claimed by the People’s Republic as being integral to China’s inalienable territory. Shouldn’t we be instructing our students accordingly? If that is not permissible, then how is it justifiable to make sweeping historical claims over Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan? If history is to be taken seriously won’t these contradictory claims prove to be unacceptable both to the political entity in Beijing and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region?
The Father of the Nation Sun Yat-sen studied in Hong Kong. Secretary Yeung, answer me this: If Sun was a student in Hong Kong today how would you regard him and his activities?
During the ‘May Fourth Movement’ of 1919, students took part in demonstrations, marches, petitions to the government and boycotts. They even engaged in physical violence against the authorities — for instance, they assaulted officials like Zhang Zongxiang who were selling out the interests of the nation, and they burned down Zhaojialou, the residence of Cao Rulin [the deputy minister of foreign affairs and a notorious supporter of Japanese interests in China].
Let me ask you then, Secretary Kevin Yeung: what’s your evaluation of ‘May Fourth’ and those who participated in it? Were they ‘patriotic students’ or where they ‘rioters’?
There’s a well-known saying [taken from Romance of the Three Kingdoms]: ‘bad officials are but as rotten timbers’. Are you familiar with it? If not, I suggest you take a look in the mirror!
— Wu Chun Him
Committee Member of
The Hong Kong Arts Development Council (Art Education)
11 June 2020