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Plans for compulsory "patriotism" class in Hong Kong schools off -- for now

Faced with tens of thousands of protesters contending that a Beijing-backed plan for “moral and national education” amounted to brainwashing and political indoctrination, Hong Kong’s chief executive backpedaled somewhat on Saturday and revoked a 2015 deadline for every school to start teaching the subject.

But the protesters were not mollified, demanding that the education plan be withdrawn entirely. Crowds of young people in black T-shirts continued to pour into the plaza and streets around the local government’s headquarters on Saturday evening after Leung Chun-ying, the chief executive, offered the compromise.

Mr. Leung said he wanted each school to decide whether to teach the subject in the coming years, an arrangement that could allow Beijing’s allies to press principals who do not want it.

“We just want to cancel the whole subject,” said Sam Chan, a 19-year-old community college student. “People want to protect our future and our sons’ futures.”

A very large crowd, estimated at 120,000 by organizers and 36,000 by the police, had formed on Friday evening, and many protesters spent the night.

Legislative elections were scheduled for Sunday. Public animosity toward the education plan could hurt pro-Beijing candidates at the polls. Hong Kong officials drafted the plan over the past 10 years to instill patriotic fervor for mainland China.

For the past 10 days, swelling protests against the plan were the latest sign of a new interest in political activism by youths here, and there were some signs that this activism could be spreading in mainland China for the first time since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

People in their 40s and older had seemed to predominate in many street demonstrations on the mainland, as families kept younger members at home until the past few months for fear that political activism would damage their chances of finding jobs and becoming breadwinners.

But in Shifang, a city in Sichuan Province in western China, a groundbreaking ceremony on June 29 for a vast copper smelting plant set off three nights of protests by tens of thousands of youths worried that the plant would cause severe pollution.

On Friday afternoon in Shifang, residents at shops and sidewalk cafes described battles that pitted young people against the police in the square around a clock tower in the city’s center. Alerted through the Internet, youths had poured in from neighboring communities in a rare, and new, example of intercity coordination by protesters.

The police initially detained 21 protesters but released them a day later as the crowds swelled. The smelting project itself has been canceled and shows no sign of being restarted, several Shifang residents said, adding that the city had been completely quiet ever since the protests.

Though the Shifang demonstrations appeared to be an isolated example of youth protests on the mainland, young people are heavy users of the Internet in China. And a tone of sarcastic contempt for the authorities is evident in many of their postings, despite censors’ efforts to remove, within hours, any that violate their guidelines.

The protests in Hong Kong, a former British colony returned to China in 1997, have been somewhat similar to the much larger Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing in 1989: large numbers of students have flocked to public spaces in front of government buildings, staging sit-ins and, in some cases, hunger strikes.

Also like the Tiananmen Square protesters, the Hong Kong students have been protesting corruption, particularly a widespread perception here that government officials have become too close to the city’s tycoons by accepting yacht trips while in office and discounted apartments and highly paid jobs after retirement. The Hong Kong protesters have even put up a “goddess of democracy” statue that resembles the Statue of Liberty, similar to the statue used by students during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.

A rumor spread on Friday that the government had sent provocateurs here to create disturbances that would give the police a pretext to disperse the crowd. The government issued a rare statement to deny the rumor, and Mr. Leung took pains on Saturday to deny it again.

“I asked the police that they must not clear the site,” he said, adding that he had even asked that umbrellas and raincoats be sent out to protesters during a midnight deluge.

Although the students did not appear satisfied with Mr. Leung’s announcement, it nonetheless represented a concession and could be seen as a sign of weakness by the Beijing officials who appointed him after his selection by a committee of 1,200 prominent Hong Kong residents that was included many Beijing allies.

The national education curriculum — contemporary Chinese history with a heavy dose of nationalism and a favorable interpretation of the Communist Party’s role — was originally supposed to be phased in school by school starting with the academic year that began last Monday. But only a handful of schools have begun teaching the subject.

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Tags: asia, china, communism, hong kong, propaganda
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