Please don't make a political football out of Chinese history

Updated: 2017-11-23 06:00

(HK Edition)

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Tim Collard explains why the teaching of Chinese history is so important, while offering some advice on sensible ways to do this in the SAR

On Nov 14's China Daily Hong Kong Edition, veteran current affairs commentator Lau Nai-keung expressed some deep concerns at the prospect of a forthcoming political battle over the teaching of Chinese history in Hong Kong.

I do not always agree with Mr Lau's views, and for that reason it is a pleasure to acknowledge that he is talking a great deal of sense here. As a historian myself, I fully agree that history, both of one's own nation and culture and of the world in general, deserves a very high place in the educational curriculum. The teaching of history should not be a political battleground, although it is necessary that political debate should be informed by an understanding of history. If I were Chinese, I should be immensely proud of the length of the continuous history of my nation. And of its depth too - a comparison of historical sources from, say, the Tang Dynasty (618-907), to the mere scraps of source material we have in Europe from the same period, makes me deeply envious.

Please don't make a political football out of Chinese history

It is thus very sad that the teaching of history in Hong Kong - one of Asia's greatest educational centers - should be falling victim to squabbles over political issues, such as localism or the "independence" issue. Of course one understands why it is happening - there are fears that the mainland may overreact to "localist" propaganda and enforce a curriculum allowing no dissent from the "official version" of history.

But these fears may be counterproductive. As Mr Lau points out, if the teaching of history in Hong Kong should appear to have been "captured" by dissident teachers, it only increases the chances of a crackdown. The facts of history speak for themselves, and they do not support a view that the mainland and Hong Kong are fundamentally different entities.

However, Hong Kong, quite properly, has a slightly different take on this, as a Chinese entity which was for a time outside the control of central Chinese governments. Hong Kong's role in the modernization of China, from serving as a base camp for Sun Yat-sen, first provisional president of the Republic of China, as he planned his reforms to the failing Qing state, to the fuelling of Deng Xiaoping's reforms in the 1980s, is a historical fact and should be clearly acknowledged. It could be said, in fact, that "one country, two systems" goes back a long way before 1997. Hong Kong has always been Chinese, has undergone a period of separate development from that of the mainland, and is now back under Chinese sovereignty making its own unique contribution to the development of the nation. Surely this is an understanding of history on which both mainland loyalists and Hong Kong localists can agree on?

But the main point on which I agree with Mr Lau is that "weaponizing" history, or using it purely for the purpose of provocation, does no one any good, especially the young people whose educational interests are being betrayed by this approach. I am British. Our history is problematic. That of Japan and Germany is more problematic still. Yes, there are elements in the recent history of China, as with other countries, which will need careful handling. But it will benefit no one if we keep on beating each other over the head with them.

As a foreign ex-diplomat and academic who occasionally lectures to students both in Hong Kong and on the mainland, I have always found people very willing to learn more and to ask intelligent questions (putting many British students to shame, in fact!). But I am also a father, and I know very well that intelligent young people do not respond well to being told what they should think about things. There is plenty of room for historical debate regarding the incredibly multi-faceted history and culture of China, and I always encounter an enormous thirst for knowledge. It would be tragic if the space for discussion were closed off due to ideological trench warfare.

So please don't make Chinese history a political football. It is far too rich and valuable for that.

The author is a sinologist, writer, columnist, lecturer and former British diplomat in Beijing.

(HK Edition 11/23/2017 page8)