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Re-shaping Education for Citizenship: Democratic National Citizenship in Hong Kong

reviewed by Nicole Newendorp - December 01, 2013

coverTitle: Re-shaping Education for Citizenship: Democratic National Citizenship in Hong Kong
Author(s): Pak-Sang Lai & Michael Byram
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing,
ISBN: 1443835315, Pages: 260, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com

In Re-Shaping Education for Citizenship: Democratic National Citizenship in Hong Kong, co-authors Pak-sang Lai and Michael Byram grapple directly with a significant social and political challenge stemming from Hong Kong’s return to mainland Chinese sovereignty in 1997. That challenge is: how to mediate tensions between creating a sense of Chinese national unity in Hong Kong and Hong Kong people’s strong sense of identity as separate from the rest of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)? In Hong Kong, where residents have been promised the continuation of their pre-1997 ways of life and continue to champion their cultural and political differences from mainland China, many people remain understandably wary about the potential compromises to their freedoms necessitated by becoming PRC citizens. Lai and Byram’s book focuses on one case study related to this thorny problem by investigating how “education for citizenship” aimed at bolstering Hong Kong students’ support of Chinese nationalism was implemented in one Hong Kong school in the early 2000s.

Since 1997, education has been at the center of many social and political debates resulting from Hong Kong’s transition from British colony to Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the PRC. First, government and populace disagreed about proposed changes to switch the medium of instruction from English to Chinese in Hong Kong’s schools. More recently, popular protests have erupted in Hong Kong over the proposed introduction of a standardized “moral and national education” curriculum to all schools beginning in 2015. The tensions that have produced these public clashes are considerable. For Hong Kong people, at stake is no less than maintaining a sense of unique identity separate from (and often critical of) the PRC, where governance practices continue to challenge principles held dear by Hong Kong people, including freedom of expression and democracy. For the mainland, concern remains about how to create a more meaningful sense of belonging to China among Hong Kong people, so that they can begin to see themselves as part of the greater national Chinese whole.

Re-shaping Education for Citizenship sits at the intersection of this critical tension, as the authors query whether it is possible to educate Hong Kong students to be Chinese citizens who are both true to their own identities as Hong Kong people even as they develop a greater understanding of Chinese culture and politics as PRC nationals. The book begins with a lengthy recap of the literature examining the role of education in nation-building as well as a detailed justification of the authors’ methodology for this study. These discussions set up the following points: 1) conflict between the long-term PRC practice of “citizenship education” (focused on educating students about Chinese Communist Party history and Chinese culture to foster students’ ideological support of PRC nationalism), and the relative lack of any history of citizenship education in Hong Kong pre-1997 when Hong Kong people were British subjects; and 2) the authors’ decision to explore how teachers and students experience and mediate this conflict through the implementation of a citizenship education curriculum in one Hong Kong school in 2003.

Employing an ethnographic approach, Lai and Byram include in their dataset classroom observations, evaluations of classroom texts, and interviews with students and teachers about course content and the role of citizenship education within the school curriculum. Lai and Byram find that rather than being restricted to one discrete class, citizenship education is interwoven throughout the school’s curriculum. Yet the citizenship education that permeates school life—including students’ choices about their extracurricular clubs and the promotion of leadership skills through academic and extracurricular activities—reflects attitudes and behavior enshrined in democratic ideals of governance (and championed by most Hong Kong people) and bears little resemblance to the content of citizenship education in the rest of the PRC. Thus, the reader is privileged with a glimpse into Hong Kong school life—a glimpse that looks tantalizingly different from the accounts of Chinese classroom practices and educational life which have been described in several recent outstanding ethnographies, including Vanessa Fong’s Only Hope: Coming of Age under China’s One-child Policy (2004) and Andrew Kipnis’ Governing Educational Desire: Culture, Politics, and Schooling in China (2011).

As an anthropologist, I would have preferred for Lai and Byram to draw out the ethnographic details of their findings and place these details in conversation with other ethnographic works addressing the connections between citizenship education and nationalism in contemporary Chinese classrooms. In Kipnis’ recent work, for example, some Chinese students (like the Hong Kong students Lai and Byram discuss) also question the authority of the moral and ideological lessons they are taught in class, yet these students lack the institutional structures that support the development of critical thinking skills described for the students engaged in citizenship education in Hong Kong. Do these other Chinese students’ views pose as substantial a challenge to Chinese nationalistic ideology as the views of the Hong Kong students described by Lai and Byram? Instead of engaging with questions such as this one, Lai and Byram privilege a theoretical focus detailing the role of education in nation building in the Chinese and Hong Kong context. In the end, their findings seem unsurprising, as the authors conclude that Hong Kong students are not “passive” learners of citizenship, and that citizenship education in Hong Kong combines lessons incorporating key aspects of democratic practices with lessons increasing students’ awareness of Chinese cultural tradition, resulting in citizenship education that looks remarkably different from the ideological indoctrination in PRC history and authority that may be more the norm in mainland schools. Ironically, this “nationalistic” education seems to subvert the very goals for which it was intended. By increasing Hong Kong students’ understanding of how to practice democracy and critically analyze information presented by the media, Hong Kong students are unlikely to become more accepting of PRC authority if it means compromising their local freedom-oriented values—despite having gained a greater sense of connection to their Chinese cultural heritage through the citizenship education they received.

Lai and Byram end their book by questioning whether Hong Kong’s unique brand of citizenship education might be accepted into mainstream Chinese citizenship education.  Yet Lai and Byram leave open additional important questions that might have bolstered this line of inquiry, including: 1) whether the citizenship education observed at their case study school is actually representative of Hong Kong citizenship educational practices more generally, and 2) how the findings presented here relate to continuities and changes in Hong Kong’s social and political life over the past ten years, as tensions between Hong Kong people and the government have increased over issues related to the continuing negotiation of Hong Kong’s future as a part of the PRC. Given the substantial protests over the proposed introduction of a standardized “moral and national education” curriculum in Hong Kong earlier this year, this latter question seems particularly relevant.


Fong, V. (2004). Only hope: Coming of age under China’s one-child policy. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press.

Kipnis, A. (2011). Governing educational desire: Culture, politics, and schooling in China. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 01, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17335, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 9:01:48 AM

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About the Author
  • Nicole Newendorp
    Harvard University
    E-mail Author
    NICOLE NEWENDORP is a Lecturer and the Assistant Director of Studies at Harvard University’s Committee on Degrees in Social Studies. She received a B.A. in East Asian Studies from Columbia University, an M.A. from Harvard University’s Regional Studies-East Asia Program, and a Ph.D. from Harvard University’s Department of Anthropology. She was awarded the 2009 Francis L.K. Hsu Book Prize by the American Association of Anthropology’s Society for East Asian Anthropology for her ethnography of Chinese-Hong Kong cross-border marriage migration, Uneasy Reunions: Immigration, Citizenship, and Family Life in Post 1997 Hong Kong (Stanford University Press, 2008). Her current research focuses on the migration of Chinese-born seniors to the U.S. and explores how these individuals make sense of relocating to the U.S. following their retirement in China.
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