I first saw Hong Kong from the air, late into the night. It was February 6, 1997. As our plane descended into the vast constellation of varicolored lights, it seemed as if we were landing in a box of sparkling jewels, layers and layers of them. The contrast of dark night and myriad lights further heightened my sense of adventure, adding to the city’s already bold allure.
At our hotel, we were delighted to find tall windows comprising one wall of our room. Those windows, offering a lovely view of part of that magical city, gave me the feel of being in a house made of glass. I knew the official celebration of Hong Kong’s last lunar new year as a British colony wouldn’t take place until the next evening, but the fireworks had already begun. After our more than nineteen-hour trip from Denver, we were exhausted but also elated to be there, where we would stay a few days before journeying on to Shanghai. So taking advantage of the magnificent view, we sipped the hotel’s complimentary jasmine tea and looked out on spirited throngs of people, twinkling lights, and anticipatory fireworks before calling it a night.
The last time I saw Hong Kong from the air was three days later when we caught an early flight to Shanghai. Our few days had been flavored by the celebratory mood of this singular lunar new year with its parades and other festivities, and we were still absorbing all we’d experienced. As the plane ascended, we savored Hong Kong’s daytime view with its varied and dramatic geography of city, mountains, and the South China Sea. Seeing how the airport tucked itself in among these features made me appreciate all that was packed into Hong Kong’s four-hundred-twenty-seven square miles.
Since that trip in 1997, much has happened, and sadly, not for the best. The glorious celebration I wrote about in an earlier essay seemed infused with hope and promise, given the treaty agreement that Hong Kong, unlike China itself, would remain semi-democratic and a capitalist economy for five decades. Or, as the Chinese expressed it, one country, two systems. This was not to be.
In the years since, particularly the past seven years, I’ve watched with increasing alarm as China has escalated its encroachment on Hong Kong. The 2014 Umbrella Movement, named for the umbrellas protestors used as passive protection from police using pepper spray, was triggered by China’s decision to prescribe a list of preapproved candidates for Hong Kong’s 2017 chief executive election. This was an egregious transgression of the treaty and its provision that Hong Kong would decide on its chief executive. And Hong Kongers did not let this offense pass without notice.
Following in 2019, a proposed extradition law in which those accused of political crimes were to be sent to China led to months of demonstrations. The protests successful, the proposed law was dropped and, in the subsequent elections for Hong Kong’s district councils, pro-democracy candidates won by a landslide. Fearing further pro-democracy victories, Beijing postponed the next election, this one for the more powerful Legislative Council (Legco) set for September 2020. It also barred pro-democracy politicians from standing and branded them subversive for their vocal opposition to the government. In March of 2021, the National People’s Congress overwhelmingly approved amendments called “Patriots administering Hong Kong,” which bar not only opponents of the Hong Kong government, but also critics of China’s Communist Party, from running for any office.
This last came in addition to a 2020 national security law limiting key liberties such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to peaceful protest. There is also a push for a stricter patriotism test, one that applies to all public officials, including judges. Cumulatively, these actions make me now see even more clearly the threat, as pro-democracy leaders, one of them eighty-two years old, face possible five-year prison terms. This all angers me, and breaks my heart.
Beyond all this, even more alarming to me is the new patriotic curriculum, which is intended to teach children only “a sense of belonging” and “affection for the Chinese people.” No longer will the schools there be allowed to do what I believe they’ve done so well— teach students to think critically and analytically. Critical thinking, essential to democracy, is a dangerous threat to an authoritarian society.
For years, first since teaching, then as a high school principal, then assistant superintendent, I’ve thought about the central role education plays in our own country, our democracy. Following those positions, in 1984 I became part of an initiative founded by prominent educational researcher and theorist, John Goodlad. Hosted by the University of Washington, Dr. Goodlad established the Center for Educational Renewal, which spawned a nationwide network of school-university-community partnerships. Our express purpose was addressing the role of schooling in a democracy. Because a healthy democracy depends on educated and enlightened citizens, citizens with more than a passing sense of how our government works, a foundational principle for the initiative was to support schools as centers for building and perpetuating our democracy. That, of course, included mastery of subject areas and critical thinking skills. Our work also promoted democratic practices in individual schools themselves, such as working together toward school improvement and renewal and engaging in useful problem-solving. Learning to discern fact from fiction was an essential tool.
Obviously, American schools have their jobs cut out for them, as does our government, and it’s essential that the two work in complementary ways. Schools must educate students so they can participate in and contribute to our system of self-governance. Citizens need the knowledge, along with critical thinking skills—such skills as observation, interpretation, analyzing facts to make judgements and ask discerning questions—that push the status quo and lead to improvement and renewal of our system. And it’s the job of our elected government to create conditions under which citizens can participate and flourish.
Chinese schools, on the other hand, while providing almost universal education, emphasize uncritical loyalty to its authoritarian government. What the Chinese government requires of its own mainland schools, the world’s largest educational system, it’s now imposing on Hong Kong.
We take much for granted. But analyzing foundational questions helps ground us in the values upon which our schools came to be, values that can easily get lost in the push for schools to do more and more. Why did we, why do we, think universal education important? How do we go beyond the slogan to ensure good schools for all children and youth? What are the core values that underlie our democratic republic? How do we act, as individuals, community, and through our institutions, to reflect those values? What is the role of schooling in our particular democracy? And how does it differ from that in an authoritarian society? From China? Relevant, crucial questions, all.
We are far, in this country, from that ideal of becoming “a more perfect union.” And recently, we’ve suffered major setbacks. Seeing Hong Kong’s fate unfold as our own democracy has faced great challenges, most notably in the last four years, makes me think that much more of the fragility of glass houses, so different from that lovely, safe glass house of my hotel room in Hong Kong. I think of what’s at stake for American schools and for the survival of democracy itself.
It was through the lens of Hong Kong’s history and a sense of the fragility of our own democracy that on January 6, 2021, I watched in horror as insurrectionists breached our nation’s Capitol, breaking windows, smashing through doors, beating capitol police with whatever was handy, including the post bearing an American flag. One policeman, caught in a door, screamed in pain, only to have his attackers accelerate their violence. Another, shot with bear spray, suffered fatal injuries and would not live to see the week through.
People in costumes, camouflage, painted faces, and everyday clothes stormed the building chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” “Get AOC,” Stop the Steal.” All of this because the then president and his followers persisted with the lie that our election was rigged, stolen from him. He’d been planting seeds of doubt about election integrity for months, suggesting that, since he was the greatest president ever, if he didn’t win, the election had to be a fraud. Further, anyone not loyal to him in any way, could be targets of his and his supporters’ revenge. This included judges who ruled against him in myriad court cases. A Hong Kong redux?
In the past four years, the now former president, like the Chinese government’s enfeebling of Hong Kong’s system, worked to raise doubts about our other institutions and has installed unqualified people to head them. Of the many affronts, his nomination of Secretary of Education was more than personal to me and among the more injurious to the country. Betsy DeVos was the first cabinet nominee ever to face a tie in the Senate, to be confirmed by the vice-president casting the tie-breaking vote. Never an educator, instead a detractor of public schools, she promoted school choice—private and charter schools—weakening support for our universal system of schooling. This despite the lack of evidence of the efficacy of private and charter schools, particularly in the public purposes of schooling.
Others, such as a Secretary of the Interior who tried to roll back wildlife protections and was under investigation for conflict of interest just days after his confirmation; an Attorney General who used the office to cover and protect the president, making a sham of the idea of prosecutorial independence.
The former president decried freedom of the press, labeling anything less than adulatory “fake.” He called the press the “enemy of the people,” using the phrase of the French during the Reign of Terror, and later the Nazis, Stalin, Lenin, among other dictators.
I thought about how the insurrection differed from the scenes we’ve seen of Hong Kong police tear-gassing, beating, and arresting pro-democracy demonstrators. How does the former president’s demand of complete loyalty differ from that coming out of Beijing? And what do his actions say about the role of schooling in building and perpetuating democracy?
The horror of the Hong Kong demonstrations and the insurrection may be similar, but contrasting dynamics lie in the meanings of the words “protest” and “insurrection.” Protests were sparked by the breaking of a treaty, of an official action, by the people who were affected, Hong Kong’s citizens. Insurrection erupted because participants, based on falsehoods fomented by the then president, were trying to stop the confirmation of a legal, constitutionally conducted national election, the fifty-ninth election in our country.
The world, including China and Hong Kong, have been watching our glass house. China, in particular, has mocked us, our throwing of stones, our criticism of events in Hong Kong. With our most recent election, we have the opportunity for our democracy to begin healing and moving forward again. But the challenge of ongoing untruths and divisive rhetoric by the former president and his allies remains. Will our own stones shatter the values this democracy is based on, values such as truth, transparent elections, and the rule of law? Or will we again build on our values and manifest them in action? If we choose the latter, the path forward will come, as poet Amanda Gorman said in her 2021 inaugural poem, “because being American is more than a pride we inherit, it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.”
And if we repair our past, strengthen our schools, focus on liberty and justice for all, will we also become, however small, a ray of hope for Hong Kong and others fighting for the same rights?