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Hong Kong has marked its first National Security Education Day since last year’s imposition of sweeping national security legislation by Beijing, as the government ramps up efforts to overhaul the school system and instill patriotism in the city’s populace following the protests of 2019.

Schools across the city Thursday were mandated to hold events including singing the Chinese national anthem and raising flags. In addition, giant billboards promoting the event have been plastered across the city, while the police held an open day where they displayed professional drills, anti-terrorism exercises and displayed armored vehicles.

While mainland China has celebrated such a day since 2016, this is the first time the semiautonomous financial hub is marking the occasion. The city’s government is required, under the national security law that was drafted in Beijing and forced on the city with no meaningful local debate, to “promote national security education in schools and universities.”

The shift to a forceful inculcation of national security issues, even among young children, comes as Beijing increases its control over almost all sectors and institutions in Hong Kong. In its most recent move to stifle political dissent, China’s top legislative body approved an overhaul of the city’s already limited elections to give authorities an effective veto over any potential opposition candidate.

Carol Chan, an events manager who has children age three and five, said of the new curriculum, “Would you teach a kindergarten kid how much money to put into the bank? They are only counting coins. It’s insane.”

Beijing believes that Hong Kong’s insufficiently patriotic youth were responsible for the sometimes violent protests throughout 2019 and the national security education day is one way of trying to shape nationalistic students, said Ivan Choy, a senior lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Police officers perform a new goose-stepping march, the same style used by police and troops on the Chinese mainland, at the city's police college before hoisting the China and Hong Kong flags on Thursday. | AFP-JIJI
Police officers perform a new goose-stepping march, the same style used by police and troops on the Chinese mainland, at the city’s police college before hoisting the China and Hong Kong flags on Thursday. | AFP-JIJI

“They think that one of the major sources of instability is from the students, the young people, so they will put more efforts on this aspect,” said Choy, who studies Hong Kong politics. “They have put more patriotic education in, and they have tried to punish or discipline teachers in secondary schools.”

As the city prepared to mark the occasion, China’s state media also published several articles about citizens who had allegedly compromised national security. These include a Shanghai real estate tycoon who allegedly financed “anti-China” activists in Hong Kong, a mainland student who became supportive of the city’s protests and a migrant worker who allegedly photographed a military port in the southern city of Shantou for foreign spies.

‘Deep sea security’

The day began with a formal ceremony featuring top officials of the Hong Kong government. Also in attendance were Zheng Yanxiong, head of the secretive agency China created to implement the controversial security law that was condemned by major Western governments, and Major General Chen Daoxiang, head of the People’s Liberation Army garrison in the city.

In a speech, Luo Huining, Beijing’s top official in Hong Kong, said, “Any attempt by foreign countries and external forces to flagrantly interfere in the affairs of Hong Kong, and to exploit Hong Kong as a pawn will be met with impactful countermeasures.”

Schools held a number of events, including what the government called a national security themed bulletin board design competition at a primary school.

“To support the theme and objectives of the National Security Education Day, the school has arranged flags to be raised,” one local secondary school said in an email to parents. “In addition, there is a set of displays near the school office with details on National Security and some Q&A posted for information.”

Hong Kong students also took part in what a government press release called “Together We Safeguard Our Nation and Homeland — Community Mosaic Wall,” where students put stickers with “smiling faces” onto a display board — reminiscent of the Lennon Walls which protesters built around the city during the 2019 protests exhibiting protest slogans and artwork.

Bookmarks distributed to students days before the event list a host of topics linked to national security, including “polar security,” “deep sea security” and “ecological security.”

There were limited public displays of opposition in a city where social-distancing restrictions and the national security law have made once raucous protests almost disappear entirely. Four activists led a small protest in the city’s Wan Chai neighborhood, according to local broadcaster RTHK.

People hold a Chinese national flag during an event marking National Security Education Day in Hong Kong. | BLOOMBERG
People hold a Chinese national flag during an event marking National Security Education Day in Hong Kong. | BLOOMBERG

‘Black hands’

The city has identified education, along with media and the judiciary, as key sectors that need to be brought to heel, after students played a key role in the city’s protest movement. Beijing has urged Hong Kong to eliminate the alleged “black hands” influencing its schools, intimating that foreign forces have helped foment societal unrest.

International schools seem to be exempt from participating in National Security Education Day. According to the South China Morning Post, the English Schools Foundation, which operates a group of international schools in Hong Kong, told parents in February that it would still have autonomy over its curriculum.

The government’s website promoting national security day has only been made available in Chinese.

The Education Bureau said in a statement, “As everyone, regardless of nationality and ethnicity, must respect and comply with the law, the Education Bureau also looks to international schools to help their students understand the National Security Law in Hong Kong and the concept of national security generally.”

Representatives of multiple of the city’s international schools didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment about how they would handle the day’s events. A spokeswoman for the ESF declined to comment.

Hong Kong told schools in February to start using a more patriotic curriculum and advised teachers to report breaches of the national security law. Children starting from around kindergarten age will be taught to memorize offenses under the law, including subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers.

Loha Tse, who works as a hotel manager and is a parent to a four year old, said her child received a sticker last week promoting the event.

“It makes no sense to force these things on to kids so young,” said Tse.

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