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''No To Brainwashing'' - Why Hong Kong's Students Are Going On Hunger Strike

Article illustrative image Partner logo Standoff in Hong Kong

HONG KONG - This is the second improvised camp to appear in Hong Kong’s business district. As the last remaining diehards continue to occupy the atrium of the HSBC tower, school kids, students, parents and teachers have set up their own tents and mats outside the parliament buildings at the Tamar site, on Hong Kong's harborfront.

On July 29, 90,000 people participated in a rally to denounce proposed pro-China patriotism lessons that will be mandatory for all primary and secondary schoolchildren. Now as the school year is about to start, the protesters are determined to make their voices heard.

On the floor, a bed of scribbled on post-it notes give an idea of the atmosphere: "No to brainwashing," "Passive resistance" and "I do not have to love China..."

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, intervened in the debate for the first time on September 4, by affirming that it was premature to call for a withdrawal of the curriculum, as he challenged its opponents to give examples of "brainwashing." As the start of the school year approaches, only six primary schools have chosen to adopt the patriotism syllabus, which is applied on a voluntary basis for now, but will become mandatory in 2015. In one of the schools, pupils are distributing black bands as a sign of disapproval.

Student hunger strike

On Monday evening, Joshua Wong -- a 15-year-old pupil and one of the organizers of the Scholarism movement created around this cause -- announced that the occupation of the Tamar site would continue "until the national education curriculum has been completely withdrawn." One of the protestors, a 60-year-old teacher, started a hunger strike and had to be taken away on a stretcher amid applause from the crowd.

Primarily initiated by three schoolchildren at the start of the movement, 10 hunger strikers have been camping outside the government offices since Saturday.

"It really touched me to see these kids on a hunger strike. I wanted to carry on what they were doing to put pressure on the government," explains Samuel, a political science student. The renowned Chinese political dissident Wang Dan -- who protested in Tiananmen Square in 1989 in Beijing -- took to Twitter on Monday, from Taiwan where he lives, to say that he would also go on hunger strike for 24 hours, as an act of solidarity with the students of Hong Kong.

On Saturday, despite the odd shower, tens of thousands of protestors came to show their support for the Tamar site movement. This peaceful gathering turned into a party and carried on until nightfall. Officially, the aim of the new national education curriculum is to "promote a sense of patriotism and the feeling of belonging to China" for young Hong Kong residents, who came under Chinese rule in 1997 after 150 years of colonial British rule.

Chinese history revisited

Wang Guangya, a top Chinese official, added in June that the lessons are designed to "help local students understand why it is important that China is governed by the Communist Party." The aforementioned course includes saluting the Chinese flag, lessons on the national anthem as well as history lessons, which, according to opponents, teach the superiority of a single-party government and "forgets" to speak about the repression of the Tiananmen Square protests on June 4 1989. "I read the curriculum again this morning before coming here, it's really something! Did you know that the Communist Party is 'united and selfless'?" asks one student. "It's not just a question of loving your country, but the students are going to be graded according to how much emotion they show toward China!" says Heidi Ma, a spokesperson for Scholarism. In recent years, the people of Hong Kong’s resentment against Chinese mainlanders has been growing. And with the new chief executive accused of pandering to Beijing instead of massaging local public opinion, a considerable amount of the population is on edge.

As the government shows no signs of scrapping its scheme, rumors are circulating that the site will be evacuated; however, authorities are denying this. The chief executive has invited opponents to meet with the committee responsible for setting up the new curriculum. An offer that may be seen as weak and a little too late. 

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