What happened in China in 1949? Was it “liberation” (解放) from a corrupt regime and two centuries of foreign domination? Or was it a “catastrophe” (淪陷) that led to a one-party dictatorship whose policies caused millions of deaths and three decades of economic decline and cultural devastation?

These are the two versions of history taught to students in mainland China and Taiwan. How to teach this history is the bitter and divisive question at the center of the debate over patriotic education, which the government wants to introduce into the schools. How to make Hong Kong students proud of being Chinese?

In his first policy address as chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa said: “We will incorporate the teaching of Chinese values in the school curriculum and provide more opportunities for students to learn about Chinese history and culture. This will foster a stronger sense of Chinese identity in our students.” All the SAR governments since then have had the same objective.

“President Xi Jinping expects Hong Kong to strengthen education on the Chinese constitution, the Basic Law and Chinese history and culture,” Education Minister Chen Baosheng told Carrie Lam in Beijing on Monday.

When I ask Chinese about history, I am astonished by the diversity and contradictions of what I hear. My friends from Beijing speak of the remarkable economic advances of the last 40 years, of the space program, of aircraft carriers and stealth jets and lifting millions from poverty.

My friends from Taiwan say they were in the process of building the new Republic of China when the Japanese invaded; the 14-year war and the Soviet Army’s gift of Japanese armaments to the People’s Liberation Army enabled the Communists to seize power.

They used to call them “bandits” (共匪) but have stopped using the word now; instead, they say “Chinese Communists” (中共) and “China mainland” (大陸地區).

When I ask people in Hong Kong, I hear a similar wide diversity of opinion. A majority of residents are descended from people who fled the mainland in 1949. Many lost their land, homes, businesses and factories that were confiscated by the new government.

After 1978, many in Hong Kong returned to the mainland as investors. Some failed and lost money, due to their own incompetence, bad luck or the corruption and malfeasance of their business partners and local officials.

Many others had a different experience. Their investments prospered; they found new markets, technologies and contacts unavailable in Hong Kong.

Others found new jobs, opportunities, homes and wives there.

Such personal experiences greatly influence how we regard history.

Eric Lam, who lived and worked happily in a foreign company for 10 years in Guangzhou, has this to say:

“We must take a long view of history. China is doing in a few decades what it took the west to do in two centuries. Its economic progress since 1980 has been remarkable. Of course, its legal system and civil society are far behind those of Hong Kong and Taiwan. But they will change with time. We must be patient.

“A country of the size and complexity of China needs a strong and efficient government, which the Communist Party provides. A democracy like that in Taiwan or India would lead to chaos and economic breakdown.

“I used to see the military crackdown in 1989 as a mistake. Now I have changed my view. It was necessary to preserve the stability the country has enjoyed since then.”

Lam’s views are widely shared by those who support the Hong Kong SAR and central governments.

Opponents take a different view. “Beijing constantly attacks Japan for not recognizing its historical crimes,” said David Leung, a secondary school teacher. “But Beijing does not recognize its own crimes.

“Estimates of the dead in the Great Famine (1959-61) exceed 30 million. How many died and were persecuted in the anti-rightist and other campaigns and the Cultural Revolution? How many museums and memorials are there in the mainland to these victims?”

Leung said he opposed patriotic education. “Beijing does not tell the truth about its own history. So would it allow schools here to tell the truth? We would have a distorted history similar to that in the mainland and our students would be misled as those in the mainland are,” he said.

In the face of these sharp contradictions, how can we reach a consensus on what history will be taught?

By Mark O’Neill


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