China’s shadow cast upon the textbooks of Taiwan and Hong Kong

by on Friday, 22 February 2013 Comments

In recent times Taiwan and Hong Kong have both gotten caught up in text book controversies, although these have root in different political contexts, they are both closely tied to the "rise" of China and its expansionist policies.

Education as an Ideological Battleground

Text book controversies in East Asia generally tend to involve China. After the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, integration policies have become more and more intensive, as well as the local resistance to them. In recent years, the bones of contention that have arisen between China and Hong Kong have become more and more numerous, the most recent being the planned implementation of a compulsory Morality and Citizenship course for primary and middle schools by the Hong Kong government, the main force behind which is the Beijing Government, concerned at the increasing extent of their failure to win the hearts and minds of the people. According to a recent poll, only 16% of Hong Kong residents think of themselves as Chinese (zhongguoren). In 2011, the Chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Jia Qinglin, commented to a group of visitors from Hong Kong, "We have to make an effort with those young people born after 1980, guiding them to become 'a nascent force of love for country and love for Hong Kong'." Lots of Hong Kong residents were worried that citizenship classes could become a form of brain-washing; officials from the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region once posted on Weibo: "citizenship education should be a form of 'brain-washing'."

Taiwan, on the other hand, started to change in 2008, just after the KMT came back into government. Ma Ying-jeou's government's leanings towards Beijing have been accompanied by a tendency towards scrapping pro-localization policies. A controversy surrounding the revision of the senior high school history curriculum is underway at the moment. Ma Ying-jeou's government point out that the current history curriculum covers the issues of the kōminka (Japanization) Movement and the Taiwanese Independence Movement. If one looks at the issue from a short term perspective, specifically the change of the party in power, one might suppose that the repeated revision and re-revision of the text book might simply a result of political pull, the changes following the political line of the green (DPP) and blue (KMT) parties respectively. If one falls into this way of thinking, it's easy to get caught up in the contentious grandstanding between both parties; the problem with the textbooks, however, is, in essence, nothing to do with the battles between the green and the blue parties, but rather it has a deeper significance.

Pseudo-colonial Cultural Policies

Examining things within a broader historical context, expanding it from a purely geopolitical perspective, the issue of Taiwanese textbooks is part of the see-saw battle between the transitional justice of the nativist democrat and the hegemonic regimes of the Chinese Communist Party and the KMT, on this historic battlefield, the nativists are at a distinct disadvantage, particularly given that the KMT are back in government. Even during the period that the DPP were in power (2000-2008), any policy that leant towards nativism or social normalization, is often smeared by the mainstream media as populism or isolationism. The brain of Taiwan's mainstream news media is branded with the idea of Greater China: they accused democracy movements of being subject to populism; taking caution in policy towards China was considered isolationism.

The problems with the textbook come from the incomplete decolonization in the process of democratization. As an émigré regime, the long-term cultural policy of 'internal colonization' or 'pseudo-colonization' of Taiwan by the KMT1. In 1945, after the KMT was ceded Taiwan from the hands of the Japanese, they carried out their own form of decolonization, incorporating all the assets left by the Japanese into industries of the party state; the majority of the Taiwanese intellectual class who spoke Japanese lost their public offices and jobs, stigmatized under the hegemonic discourse of Chinese nationalism. Intellectuals suddenly became illiterate, and had to relearn the 'ancestral' language, history, geography and cultural classics. People from every class were bombarded by the party state ideology through the education system, systematically brainwashed through the mediums of radio, television, and newspapers.

Reactionary Politics Hurts Democracy

Democratization inevitably got rid of these colonial style cultural policies, it also broke down vested interests and certain modes of thinking (like those who advocated putting a lot of Classical Chinese in middle school National Language Literature textbooks). Therefore, after the KMT got back into government in 2008, they implemented a lot of anti-nativist policies of a reactionary quality. Political economist Albert Hirschman, in his famous The Rhetoric of Reaction pointed out that, '[...]reactionaries are not likely to launch an all-out attack on that objective. Rather, they will endorse it, sincerely or otherwise, but then attempt to demonstrate that the action proposed or undertaken is ill-conceived; indeed, they will most typically urge that this action will produce, via a chain of unintended consequences, the exact contrary of the objective being proclaimed and pursued.'

In Taiwan after democratization, some people recall Chiang Ching-Kuo (the son of Chiang Kai-shek) with fondness, and view his 'contribution' to Taiwan through rose-tinted spectacles. This language strategies employed in this kind of discourse are a classic example of Hirschman's rhetoric of reaction – although democracy is good, it can lead to mafia and business related factionalism and governmental impotence. In comparison, the rule of Chiang Ching-Kuo seems like a golden age of 'efficiency' and 'integrity'. The remnants of authoritarianism inch their way back in just like this. The fact that Chiang Ching-Kuo encouraged the formation of local factions to control Taiwanese society, exploiting these factions to exercise an industrial monopoly, employing the divide and conquer effect by encouraging competition between these factions.

The Corrosive Effect of Nationalism on the Development of Civil Society

The controversy currently underway in Hong Kong concerning (national) citizenship classes, has to be seen in the context of Chinese Nationalism, China's core national interests, and the expansion of a hegemonic Chinese culture. At the beginning of the 1980s when the Chinese and the British initiated negotiations, Deng Xiaoping implied that after the handover the unrestrained freedoms enjoyed by the Hong Kong Chinese community - specifically legalized gambling and prostitution - would continue, when he used the phrase said 'the horse racing will continue, the dancing will continue'(ma zhao pao、wu zhao tiao), which was already an omen of the unfortunate and impending fate of Hong Kong. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would further Hong Kong's materialist logic, whilst refusing to cede to grassroots' calls for democratization after decolonization (1997 handover). Ironically, the strength of Hong Kong's civil society comes from the very fact that after the handover, the behaviour of the CCP engendered dissent or repulsion amongst the people of Hong Kong. A government machine that attempted to strengthen its control over society, caused the growth of a self-empowered civil society. Hong Kong's citizen's opposition to brain-washing of the (national) citizenship classes indicates a rejection of the well-funded and overbearing 'colonialism of the ancestral nation', in an attempt to resist the erosion of local cultures and societies by a Greater Chinese cultural hegemony.

 Mainland Chinese society has itself long suffered under education deeply influenced by a pernicious nationalism. The burden of nationalism has been suffocating for generations of Chinese people. The government elites in the Zhongnanhai buildings use the nationalist sentiments of its vast people as a rhetorical device to expand national power. The root of this populist nationalism is essentially the national education policy.

Taiwan's democratic experience shows: just as the national propaganda machine has no other option but to relinquish their ideological control, nationalist sentiment is then rapidly blunted, only then will society move towards normalization, and civilization. Greater Chinese nationalism is not only harmful to Taiwanese people, the harm towards Chinese people is also particularly strong. Cross-strait peace would have to be an eternal peace in both societies, and not underhand dealings between two unjust regimes.

Society's Normalization

Behind Hong Kong's government drawing up of a (national) 'citizenship education' and the KMT's restoration of 'Basic Chinese (zhonghua) Cultural Study' and their reform of the curriculum and the textbooks, lurks the imposing shadow of Chinese cultural hegemony. Issues of nationalism in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong all have their own political context, as well as a common historical territorial background, specifically the attack on Asia of'the rise of China'. As civil society groups across the'two banks and three places' (liangan sandi - refers to China, Taiwan and Hong Kong) are continually striving to hold cross-strait common issues which are common on sides of the straits, the nationalist eye must be discarded, and discussion must emerge from a social perspective. Returning onto the road of social normalization allows different societies to be able to read each other, and promotes a profound understanding and criticism of the harm perpetrated on society by nationalist hegemony.

(This is a summarized version that was republished in Renlai Monthly, the full version was published on 26th July 2012 on iSunAffairs Weekly and on eRenlai on 29th August 2012)

Translated from the Chinese original by Conor Stuart, Photo by 香港學民思潮

1. For more on the nature of the pseudo-colonial regime of the KMT, see Wu Jieh-min's 'Pink Specter over the Taiwan Strait'(Taihai shangkong de fenhongse youling) in Taiwan: A Radical Quarterly in Social Studies (Taiwan shehui yanjiu jikan) No.56, 2005, pp 219-234


Wu Jieh-min (吳介民)

國立清華大學當代中國研究中心 (Center for Contemporary China),執行委員
Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica


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