“Making active contributions to creating a better Hong Kong and achieving national rejuvenation.” This is likely not how most parents in the bustling financial and commercial center, which has prided itself as the world’s city, envision a future for their children. But it was how China’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping, summed up his hopes for students at Hong Kong’s Pui Kiu Middle School in a personal reply published prominently last month on the front page of the People’s Daily newspaper.
In Hong Kong, where few read the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, the reportedly heartfelt letter from Xi drew “enthusiastic responses” from all walks of society — according, at least, to a roundup of comments from the press, local officials, and the education sector cobbled together by the Chinese government’s powerful Central Liaison Office. The letter was widely seen as representing Xi’s expectations of the city’s youth, and pointing the way for the Hong Kong government’s future work on patriotic education, a topic of longstanding controversy in the territory.
But how had a letter from a class of tenth-graders worked its way all the way up to Beijing, and into the secure Zhongnanhai compound where Xi Jinping and other top leaders conduct the daily affairs of Party and state? And more importantly, what does the letter’s reception in Hong Kong say about changes to the character of public discourse in the city?
The Patriots of Pui Kiu
On the first question, the history of Pui Kiu Middle School (培僑中學) offers a colorful answer.
Pui Kiu was founded in 1946 by a group of self-identified “patriots” with the aim of nurturing the children of overseas Chinese “into supportive forces for the construction of the new China.” In its early days, the school recruited students from the families of “patriotic businessmen” and overseas Chinese who were generally more well-off, and hence earned a reputation as a “school for red/patriotic aristocrats” (紅色/愛國貴族學校). But as time went on, Pui Kiu students came to have a more diverse background and included more children from local families.
The fortunes of the school have ebbed and flowed along with political changes in Hong Kong.
From its founding, Pui Kiu Middle School openly declared its pro-Communist ideological stance in then-British Hong Kong, yet it remained untouched by colonial authorities. Ng Hong-mun, chairman of the board for the Pui Kiu Education Foundation and a long-serving former member of the National People’s Congress, believed this was because the government wished to counteract the influence of the Kuomintang in Hong Kong in the 1940s into the 1950s, “playing the balancing act.”
In the 1950s, however, Pui Kiu began to face greater pressure from British officials. Mainland-trained teachers at the school were refused registration. And most notably, headmaster Parker Tu was deported in 1958 for the “communist indoctrination of students,” following a raid on the school library that resulted in the confiscation of 19 books considered communistic.
The Pui Kiu library included such titles as “How to be a Good Communist” by Liu Shaoqi (劉少奇) and the memoirs of patriotic philanthropist and businessman Tan Kah Kee (陳嘉庚), who was known as a great patron of overseas Chinese schools in the early 20th century — and who would later be given a state funeral in Beijing upon his death there in 1961. (British colonial authorities in Singapore had denied Tan re-entry in 1950 out of concern for his possibly communist associations).
The 1958 deportation of Parker Tu was strongly protested by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). A related report from the official Xinhua News Agency also accused police of “savagely beating” its reporters along with students and teaching staff, “a serious atrocity violating the right of Chinese journalists to cover the news.”
Despite these tensions, however, Pui Kiu managed to avoid being outlawed, unlike the patriotic Chung Hwa Middle School, which was deregistered following an explosion inside the building during the 1967 leftist riots against British rule.
As Sino-British negotiations over the handover of Hong Kong began in the 1980s, Pui Kiu moved toward becoming one of the first directly subsidized schools in Hong Kong, a status it finally gained in 1991, ending a “40-year-long period of unfair exclusion and suppression,” according to the school’s website.
“Earnest Expectations” for Hong Kong
Over the past decade, the above story of suspicion and intimidation has become ready material in the broader official narrative of the triumph of Chinese patriotism in the face of struggle. At the school’s 70th anniversary in November 2016, the keynote speech was delivered by then-director of the Liaison Office of the Central Government, Zhang Xiaoming, who said:
No matter what storms they face, whether it is good or bad times, the people of Pui Kiu stayed true to why they started. Their will to love and serve the country is unwavering, and their commitment to patriotic education has never faltered.
It was no doubt the school’s staunch commitment throughout the years that made it an exemplary patriotic school in the eyes of the Party’s top leader, Xi Jinping. With a stroke of his pen in his July letter, Xi christened Pui Kiu not just as integral to the “glorious tradition” of Hong Kong patriotism, but as essential to its future autonomy:
Patriotism is the core of the spirit of the Chinese nation. Hong Kong compatriots have a glorious tradition of patriotism and love for Hong Kong. It is the important foundation for the robust and sustainable implementation of One Country, Two Systems.
Clearly, Xi’s letter is about much more than just praising Pui Kiu and its students. State-controlled media, senior Hong Kong officials, and the education sector in the city have all echoed his wishes for Hong Kong’s youth at large and for the territory’s future.
Just as it appeared on the front page of the People’s Daily, Xi’s letter to the students was featured prominently on the homepage of the combined Ta Kung Pao / Wen Wei Po news website, operated by the Liaison Office of the Central Government. Alongside Xi’s letter was an official commentary from the newsgroup praising the legacy of Pui Kiu Middle School, and urging the necessity of greater patriotism in Hong Kong.
The Ta Kung Pao commentary also sought to compress the CCP’s expectations for Hong Kong youth with a political catchphrase, or tifa (提法), reminiscent of those regularly deployed across the border to mobilize action and signal consensus as well as compliance — the kind of political language that until only very recently was mostly alien to Hong Kong politics.
The new phrase was the “Four Integrations” (四個結合), which the Ta Kung Pao defined as a unification of knowledge and action; of understanding of the world and understanding of the country; of patriotic sentiments and personal abilities; and of personal growth and contributions to the nation. “The young people of Hong Kong should take President Xi’s reply as a guide, realize the ‘Four Integrations,’ carry forth the patriotic spirit, and make contributions worthy of the times for the development of Hong Kong and the building of a strong nation,” the outlet said.
The familial relation of the Ta Kung Pao phrase added to the sense that it was, at its core, about ideological assimilation as much as “patriotism.” In recent years, a number of “integrations” have emerged in Chinese commentaries and policy documents. The most important of these is the “Two Integrations,” or “Two Combines” (两个结合), a catchphrase put forward by Xi Jinping that essentially roots the legitimacy of the CCP in a combination of China’s deep traditional culture and its “red heritage” under the Party, culminating in Xi’s latest contributions to the Sinicization of Marxism.
In a further sign of how intertwined the PRC-style propaganda tactics have become in Hong Kong with the business of daily administration, a thank-you message from Hong Kong’s Chief Executive John Lee to Xi was also reported prominently on the Ta Kung Pao / Wen Wei Pao website. Xi’s words to Pui Kiu students, said Lee, reflect the leader’s “earnest expectations” for Hong Kong’s young people in fulfilling their mission and responsibility.
Lee also understood that the letter contained messages for his government. He pledged to strengthen patriotism and national education in Hong Kong, and to provide an environment conducive to the growth of Hong Kong’s youth into “a new generation who love the country and love Hong Kong, with a global vision, aspirations, and a positive mindset.”
The promotion of patriotic education around the carefully constructed symbolism of Xi Jinping’s letter to Pui Kiu — which clearly happened with the prior planning and involvement of Lee’s administration — points to what will likely become a familiar pattern in Hong Kong. This brand of political mobilization, still shockingly new for many Hong Kongers, would have been unthinkable to most even just four years ago.
On the issue of patriotic education, a sensitive point for city residents for many years, what will this political campaign mean? Once again, Piu Kiu Middle School points the way.
Patriotic Education in the New Era
Given Pui Kiu’s background, it is no surprise that it has led the push for patriotic education among Hong Kong schools, both in the past and in the present.
Pui Kiu Middle School was among the first schools in Hong Kong that started holding regular PRC flag-raising ceremonies on campus. It continued to fly the five-star flag and sing the PRC’s national anthem during the period of British rule despite the prohibition of such practices in education laws at the time and warnings from the colonial government.
Pui Kiu students in the 1960s reportedly studied Quotations from Chairman Mao (the so-called “Little Red Book”) and assiduously read China Youth, the magazine published by the Communist Youth League.
Today, Pui Kiu students might not be reading Communist texts but they still participate in activities that average Hong Kong teenagers do not yet experience — and that speak to close affinities with their peers across the border. In their letter to Xi, the students recounted experiences speaking with astronauts at the Tiangong space station and taking part in a burial ceremony for the PRC soldiers who died fighting the US in the Korean War.
Other activities that Pui Kiu offers its students include talks on national security, military-style boot camps, and visits to mainland sister schools. There are also tours to tech companies in the Greater Bay Area, the integrated economic area covering nine cities in Guangdong province — which the Chinese leadership envisions as encompassing Hong Kong and Macau as well.
The school’s students, the Ta Kung Pao said in its paraphrasing of Xi Jinping’s words, are “more able to understand the pride of being Chinese” due to their participation in such activities.
Certainly, pride was evident in the text of the letter students sent to the CCP General Secretary, which again is in harmony with the themes generally found in Chinese political discourse, about martyrs and sacrifice. Referring, for example, to the 20 Pui Kiu alumni that volunteered to “resist US aggression and aid Korea” (抗美援朝) from 1950 to 1958, the students wrote in their letter to Xi:
That we can stand here safe and sound is the result of our martyrs’ protection of our homeland. In this era of peace and prosperity, we should learn from our seniors and carry forward the spirit of patriotism and love for Hong Kong.
Reflecting on their interactions with the Tiangong astronauts, Pui Kiu’s students wrote:
Our emotions could not be calmed for a long time, both because we felt the noble spirit of generations of Chinese aerospace trailblazers who sacrificed themselves for the country, and because the seed of the dream in everyone’s heart was nourished unexpectedly!
The “seed of the dream” (梦想的种子) was an unmistakable reference to Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream,” of what he has called “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
In an interview with Wen Wei Pao, former Pui Kiu principal Chiu Cheung Ki (招祥麒) expressed the hope that Xi’s encouragement and recognition of the school would provide positive momentum for patriotic education in Hong Kong.
Just days after Xi’s response landed, the Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers, a teachers’ union that “adheres to the principle of loving the country and Hong Kong,” held a public seminar studying the letter and discussing what it means for the future of local patriotic education.
Once again, the echoes of politics across the border were strong. In China’s CCP-led political culture, this is generally the way of things. Policy priorities are announced and affirmed as a fait accompli through official speeches and related news and propaganda. The campaigns that ensue then ripple through the national bureaucracy as everyone leaps to the process of implementation.
At the Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers, members opined that patriotism should not just be the responsibility of some selected schools but should become a mainstream value.
Tang Fei (鄧飛), Legislative Councilor and vice chair of the Federation commented that Xi’s reply “fully affirmed the efforts of patriotic schools in implementing patriotic education.” He added that the education community should exercise creativity and make use of upcoming events such as Korean War commemorations and the 10th Anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative, allowing Hong Kong’s youth to “experience the historical significance of US-China competition and understand the major trends in world development.”
In the same vein, a Sing Tao Daily editorial also urged Hong Kong students to actively participate in activities that strengthen the idea of the state and the nation, so that they can “have a more accurate and in-depth knowledge of their country through first-hand experience, and are less likely to be misled by disinformation from the West.”
Meanwhile, education secretary Christine Choi pledged in a Facebook post that the Education Bureau would respond to the country’s expectations — which is to say, Xi Jinping’s expectations — on education with action by strengthening “patriotic education in the New Era” (新时代爱国主义教育) and continuously enriching the national education system. Choi’s post demonstrated once again the rising penchant for PRC official-speak among government officials in Hong Kong. “New Era” is a familiar Xi Jinping neologism, used prominently since 2014 to signal the specialness of his own period of leadership.
How is patriotic education substantively different in the New Era? That, of course, also has a great deal to do with Xi’s special brand of politics.
In 2019, the CCP Central Committee and the State Council released an outline for “patriotic education in the New Era” that stressed the importance of the leader’s signature political concept, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” which would “arm the Party” and “educate the people.” The document placed emphasis on youth; on loving the Party, the country, and socialism (爱党爱国爱社会主义相统一); on the “Chinese dream“; and on the use of mass media, artistic works, and the internet to create a powerful atmosphere for patriotic education.
Just a few weeks before Xi’s reply letter to students at Pui Kiu Middle School made a splash in Hong Kong, the draft Patriotic Education Law was introduced to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. The draft law codifies and elaborates on elements laid down in the outline.
For example, internet information service providers are instructed under Article 30 to “produce and transmit patriotic messages online” and to “develop and operate new platforms, new technologies, and new products to vividly carry out online patriotic education activities.” Television stations and newspaper publishers are likewise asked to “tell good patriotic stories” and promote patriotism in innovative ways. The law also prohibits specific acts that are deemed unpatriotic, including desecrating the spirit of martyrs, denying acts of invasion and massacres, and defiling patriotic education facilities.
Not surprisingly, given Hong Kong’s longstanding resistance to patriotic education, the territory was also mentioned in the draft. Article 22 provides that the state is to adopt measures to strengthen the sense of identity among “Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan compatriots” towards the PRC and traditional Chinese culture.
Soon after China’s legislature tabled the bill, John Lee announced that the Special Administrative Region would comply. It remains to be seen how much of it will apply in Hong Kong, but even without this law or Xi’s letter, it was already clear that Lee’s government is more than committed to promoting patriotic education, and to accommodating the media and social campaigns seen as necessary to bring public opinion along.
Whatever changes do come, they follow a new local curriculum rolled out in 2021 for both Chinese history and so-called “values education,” with an emphasis on the development of national awareness, an “accurate” understanding of Chinese history, and a deep appreciation for traditional Chinese culture. Under these changes, high school students in Hong Kong are now also required to participate in study tours to the mainland as part of a new compulsory “Citizenship and Social Development” course.
Pui Kiu, which in many ways has already blazed the trail, is among the schools least affected by these changes. In the wake of Xi Jinping’s headline letter, as the education sector in Hong Kong voices its eagerness to replicate what Pui Kiu has achieved, and as the SAR government pledges its commitment to “cultivating national pride,” more schools will be following in its footsteps.