Photographer: Robert Gilhooly/Bloomberg
Photographer: Robert Gilhooly/Bloomberg

China’s surreal and uneasy relationship with Hong Kong is a story you just have to love.

The latest chapter: the mainland government’s campaign to force-feed “patriotic education” to Hong Kong’s students, extolling the genius of the Communist Party and all it has done for China and humanity. That mind-numbing phrase evokes a wealth of literary -- not to mention rock ’n’ roll -- references that parents, teachers and students rallied around as the school year started.

Hong Kong wisely heeded public pressure and shelved the plan, at least for now. Yet anger over China’s meddling won’t be disposed of so easily. Nor is China about to abandon its quest to bring the city’s 7 million residents to heel.

This sorry tale coincides with the 15th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule, an event celebrated in 1997 with unbridled optimism, lavish parties and skies ablaze with fireworks. Today, the fireworks are on the ground.

Tens of thousands first took to Hong Kong’s streets in late July to oppose a curriculum devised to stifle independent thinking in an economy that thrives on it. Student protests became such a concern for Hong Kong’s leaders that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying canceled his first overseas official visit, skipping last weekend’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Russia.

Trying to impose an education program that amounts to a whitewashing of Chinese history backfired horribly. Walking the streets of Hong Kong recently, I saw the anger firsthand. I encountered hundreds of protesters carrying placards stating “We don’t need no thought control,” and singing the lyrics made famous by Pink Floyd’s 1979 hit “Another Brick in the Wall.”

‘The Party’

Chatting to them, I heard several mentions of George Orwell’s 1949 classic “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” a dystopian story of a society in thrall to “The Party” and its totalitarian ideology. In this real-life narrative, the Communist Party wants to weave its rigid dogma into the lives of Hong Kongers.

“It’s so offensive that China thinks we are this stupid,” said Andy Tang, a 20-year protester and engineering student. “Most mainlanders don’t even know about Tiananmen Square or the millions who died thanks to Mao Zedong’s policies. They don’t know a thing about their government’s real history. And now China wants to keep us in Hong Kong in the same darkness?”

China must tread carefully. It is risking the little remaining credibility it has with many in Hong Kong, just as it did 10 years ago with a notorious anti-subversion law known as Article 23. Massive demonstrations defeated that legislation which, thanks to ambiguous wording, would have curbed basic liberties, including freedom of the press and information. Under it, a Hong Kong economist making skeptical forecasts about Chinese growth might have been in legal trouble.

Hong Kong is highly sensitive to anything that threatens the “one country, two systems” arrangement. China’s recent handiwork speaks to the clumsiness of its oversight of a city that once put out the welcome mat.

At first, China earned it. The country’s rapid growth made Hong Kong a boomtown during much of the decade after the handover. China opened the emigration floodgates, allowing more and more of its nouveau riche to visit Hong Kong, spend lavishly and transform the city into a luxury-shopping mecca. Their money also caused a housing bubble like few before it.

The result is one of the fastest-widening gaps between rich and poor. Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, rose from 0.43 in 1971 to 0.537 in 2011 (a reading of zero means income equality and one complete inequality). Hong Kong is getting squeezed on both ends of the economic food chain. Low-wage mainlanders are taking more and more jobs away from middle-class Hong Kong residents, while wealthy Chinese are driving property prices far out of their reach.

Billionaires Dominate

Since his inauguration in July, Leung has struggled to cool real-estate prices that have almost doubled since 2009 even after predecessor Donald Tsang sought to rein in speculation with higher minimum mortgage deposits and transaction taxes, and by making more land available for development. For all the chatter about Hong Kong being the freest economy, it is dominated by a handful of billionaires and their political benefactors in Beijing who have little time for the middle class. That has fueled a new sense of anxiety among the broader public.

The dismal timing of China’s brainwashing campaign shows it still doesn’t get it. Hong Kongers are proud of their Chinese heritage. They feel pride when China tops the medals tables at the Olympics, sends rockets into space, records pop music to which the world sings along, makes movies that win Oscars and is touted as the economic and geopolitical power of the future. But they don’t want a one-sided and dangerous cherry-picked version of history forced on them.

Officials in Beijing should never have tried to impose the “China Model” textbook on Hong Kong, which calls the corrupt Communist Party “selfless” and an unambiguous force for good and success. Nor should it try again in a year or two, as seems likely. China should be learning from the place. Hong Kong’s press freedoms, transparent banking system, entrepreneurial spirit and reasonable constraints on lawmakers who line their pockets are virtues China needs.

In today’s globalized and interconnected world, Hong Kong’s residents need all the education they can get. What they don’t need is China’s thought control.

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: William Pesek in Hong Kong at wpesek@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net