Hong Kong’s government on Saturday backed down on a plan to force children to take Chinese patriotism classes, after thousands took to the streets in protest ahead of legislative polls.
Organisers said 120,000 protesters rallied outside the government headquarters late Friday but police put the number at 36,000, a marked escalation in demonstrations which have waxed and waned for 10 straight days.
The protests, which continued Saturday, began in July when tens of thousands demonstrated against what they say is a Bejing-imposed policy to brainwash children with Communist Party propaganda.
Wearing black and chanting slogans, the demonstrators have become a daily feature at the executive building and a major headache for the pro-Beijing government leading up to elections Sunday for the Legislative Assembly.
Some protesters staged hunger strikes and students had erected a replica of the democracy statue that symbolised the student-led 1989 Tiananmen protests in mainland China.
The city’s Beijing-backed leader, Leung Chun-ying, had rejected demands to meet the students, saying he would not negotiate the withdrawal of the policy he inherited from the previous government in July.
But in a dramatic about face on the eve of the election, the wealthy former property surveyor held a press conference late Saturday to say the mandatory aspect of the policy had been scrapped.
“The amendment of this policy means that we are giving the authority to the schools,” Leung said, dropping the 2016 deadline for the curriculum to be taught in all primary and secondary schools.
“The schools are given the authority to decide when and how they would like to introduce the moral and national education.”
Leung also promised to re-examine the entire curriculum in the light of the public outcry.
“We think that this is a step forward by the government in response to the Hong Kong people’s power, as shown in this campaign,” National Education Parents’ Concern Group spokeswoman Linda Wong said.
The government, formed after a small group of largely pro-Beijing elites appointed Leung earlier this year, had insisted the subject was important to foster a sense of national belonging and identity.
Government-funded course material extolled the benefits of one-party rule, equated multi-party democracy to chaos, and glossed over events like the bloody Tiananmen crackdown and the mass starvation of Mao’s regime.
The administration now appears to have caved in to public opposition amid rising anti-Beijing sentiment in the semi-autonomous southern city, which enjoys a degree of democracy and freedom not allowed in mainland China.
Lawmaker Anna Wu, who chairs a government committee studying the policy, said the authorities decided on a course of action that was “the most inclusive and most liberal”.
“It is also very consistent with academic freedom and therefore I support this move,” she said.
The new 70-seat legislature elected Sunday will pave the way for full suffrage, which Beijing has promised in 2017 for Leung’s job of chief executive and by 2020 for the parliament.
Pro-democracy parties were using the education furore to galvanise their supporters, hoping to boost their representation in parliament and maintain a veto over constitutional amendments.
Just over half of the incoming legislature will be directly elected, with the remainder chosen by relatively small “functional constituencies” organised along professional and sectoral lines and generally loyal to Beijing.