HONG KONG -- It is an old saw that victors write history, and in Hong Kong, the British have had 156 years to write theirs.
When Yip Shuk Yee was a high school student in the 1960s, her colonial textbooks referred to the Opium War, in which Britain wrested Hong Kong from China, as a "business dispute." Missing was any mention of Britain's legacy of creating millions of Chinese opium addicts in its quest to pay for tea.
Yip, today a vice principal, has remembered it as a lesson in the power of textbooks.
Now the day of reckoning is approaching. As Hong Kong prepares to return to Chinese sovereignty July 1, textbook authors are already correcting what they see as shadings of history. Educators say that students have learned too little about their Chinese roots, especially now that they will be Chinese in citizenship as well as ethnicity.
But alarm bells have sounded over how far the rewriting of official history may go. Many of Hong Kong's teachers and students fear an overcorrection might pose its own risks to the truth, embracing extreme nationalism or soft-pedaling disasters of Communist Chinese history.
The issue goes to the heart of speculation about Hong Kong's future under Chinese rule. China supporters insist that Beijing will abide by the Basic Law, a constitution that guarantees academic freedom and autonomy for Hong Kong in education and most aspects of life. China's boosters also point out that Britain's approach to education here, as in other colonies, has not always been so open.
Last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen set off a firestorm when he said some Hong Kong textbooks "do not accord with history or reality and must be revised."
Those wary of China's promise to keep its hands off Hong Kong predict that even if Beijing does not mandate changes, teachers will censor themselves out of fear of reprisals from a government notorious for not tolerating dissent.
"When lecturers write history textbooks, they may worry that one day, censorship will come, so they may fall into line with the opinions of the Chinese government," says Cheung Man-kwong, a pro-democracy legislator and representative of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union. "That will affect the quality of texts, the history we teach and the views we create."
The British established Hong Kong's educational system on the English model, with free compulsory education to age 15 at government-subsidized schools, or paid tuition at a smattering of religious or international schools. Public schools must follow state curriculum, and although they are allowed to choose textbooks, most stick to a recommended list to ensure that all topics on state exams are covered.
A bias in favor the English language, once required in schools, runs deep. More than 80 percent of the colony's 460 secondary schools teach in English, even though only 15 percent are considered fit for the task.
Amid concerns that students are not learning because they can't understand English, the government has ordered that all schools must teach in Chinese starting next year unless they can prove the English abilities of their teachers and students.
That move is unlikely to create controversy with China, which is eager to promote the mother tongue in the territory. But some educators worry that after generations of learning one superpower's version of history, students may now may have to starting learning another -- instead of establishing their own.
Beijing has given no orders so far for changes to texts. In his controversial speech, Foreign Minister Qian reported recommendations made in May by a Hong Kong advisory committee to update books to reflect the territory's return to China, and to alter references to the Opium War as a "trade dispute" and to rival Taiwan as "the Republic of China."
"The reason we looked at textbooks was because there was a request from publishers, not from Beijing," said Tsang Yok Sing, chairman of the pro-China Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, a school principal and a member of the panel that reviewed texts. "Publishers here are shrewd businessmen, and they worried if the texts approved by the British government were rejected by the new Hong Kong government, they'd go bankrupt.
His committee did not suggest whitewashing black spots on Communist China's history, such as the persecution of intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s or the deaths by famine of nearly 30 million people under the Great Leap Forward economic policies of the 1950s. Both episodes are considered mistakes in China, though the consequences are not discussed in detail.
Neither did his panel advise publishers to remove references to the massacre June 4, 1989, of pro-democracy supporters in Beijing, which brought one-sixth of Hong Kong's people onto the streets in protest at the time. The Tiananmen Square protests were described glowingly in some Hong Kong classrooms and texts as a "patriotic democratic movement."
But a survey of several secondary school texts in bookstores found that not one mentioned June 4, even though it is part of the official history syllabus here.
A few years ago, a controversy erupted when Hong Kong's then-education secretary said the incident should not be taught. The textbook advisory committee ignored him, but many publishers shortened or removed their coverage of it nonetheless. One 1994 text, for example, makes no mention of bloodshed, saying only, "The government intervened in June and the incident came to a rest."
It is this apparent self-censorship by writers and publishers, even by teachers, that many in Hong Kong fear the most.
"The only gray area we have now is June 4th. The rest is very black and white. Mao failed miserably with the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and we don't have to hide anything from" students, says a history teacher at an elite public school, who like many others asked that her name not be used.
"With June 4th, I believe we shouldn't talk too much about this," she said. "And if you ask me what else might change, I question whether we will have to talk more about communism."
Questions of academic freedom extend to university campuses. One politics professor, who asks not to be named, says he will "tell the whole story, but with a little nervousness in my heart.
"I gave a lecture recently on the nature of socialist society -- you don't think my brain was going around and around on how is this being interpreted, and can I do it next year?"
Even at Pui Kiu Middle School, a campus with long-standing sympathies for Communist China, pupils say they want to learn true history, not ideology.
"We should talk about all of these incidents June 4th, the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap -- because they happened and they should be known," says Chan Po Yan, 17.
Teaching more about China and instilling healthy nationalism is essential, says Ting Wai, a politics professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. "In the past, young people here didn't care about China; they were insulated from the problems of China. But in the future, whether you like it or not, it's very clear that if China goes wrong, we will be in trouble, too."
Pub Date: 4/12/97