The ruling Chinese Communist Party is extending its United Front strategy to schools in the former colonies of Hong Kong and Macau in a bid to garner "voluntary" support for its leadership, RFA has learned.
Beijing's ministry of education announced on Tuesday that it would allow teachers trained in Hong Kong, Macau, and even the separately governed democratic island of Taiwan to take exams that would qualify them to teach in mainland China.
The move is part of an ongoing offer of full residency status to residents of Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, which the Taiwan government has warned will risk human rights violations for anyone agreeing to be treated as a Chinese citizen.
Applicants for the teaching scheme must "voluntarily uphold the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, adhere to the direction of socialist education and implement the party's educational policy," the ministry said in a Jan. 7 announcement on its official website.
Bruce Lui, senior journalism lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, said the moves are part of the Chinese Communist Party's "United Front" work, which aims to co-opt groups and individuals outside the party to further its aims.
He said it was likely sparked by the vocal opposition in Hong Kong's education sector to proposals to introduce "patriotic education" into the city's schools, which many saw as "brainwashing."
"This is to let Hong Kong teachers know that the Communist Party requires them to hold to a certain political line," Lui said. "They will not allow teachers who oppose the Chinese Communist Party or are not patriotic."
A backwards step
China’s education minister last year called on the Hong Kong government to resurrect the controversial program in the city's schools after it was shelved in 2012 following mass protests in which student activist Joshua Wong first emerged as a protest leader.
"[The party] requires you to relinquish your own mind, along with your capacity for independent and critical thought, and turn into a ... soulless teaching machine," Lui said. "These requirements pretty much run counter to the basic concept of education."
"I think it is a huge backwards step."
Fung Wai-wah, president of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union, the largest teachers' union in the city, said such requirements would be understandable for teachers trained in mainland China.
He said he didn't think Hong Kong's teachers would accept such requirements.
"Education should enable people to think independently, and improve their abilities and qualities," Fung said. "It shouldn't be used as a brainwashing tool, or as a tool for government to exert control."
"This is incompatible with our philosophy of education here in Hong Kong," he said. "We don't want to be used as tools of the state, to carry out control and brainwashing."
"I don't think most teachers in Hong Kong would accept this," Fung said. "There will definitely be huge resistance if they try to implement this stuff in Hong Kong."
An unattractive offer
Macau University lecturer Choi Chi U said the move was definitely part of the United Front strategy, but that low salaries in China made the offer fairly unattractive to teachers outside mainland China.
"For example, they only make between 5,000 and 8,000 yuan a month in Beijing, and they would have to leave their familiar surroundings," Choi said.
"[I can only see it working] if they made it extremely attractive," he said.
The education ministry is already rolling out extensive United Front operations on major university campuses across China, announcing a list of 20 elite institutions charged with setting up "study centers" for party ideology.
Six universities in Beijing are on the list, including Peking University, Tsinghua University, and Renmin University, the Global Times newspaper reported.
Northeast Normal University and Jilin University are being targeted in the northeast, while Wuhan University, Shanghai Jiaotong University, Chongqing University, and Lanzhou University in the northwest are also on the ministry's shortlist, it said.
The centers will be charged with "maintaining stability ... and United Front work ... and are required to keep in touch with relevant departments in the MOE to push forward the work and report problems," the paper quoted the ministry as saying.
Lining up support
The Chinese Communist Party's United Front Work Department is tasked with ensuring that groups and individuals outside the party endorse its message.
It seeks to propagate the party's political ideology among any group not considered a natural part of its support base, including religious believers, lawyers, academics, and ethnic minority groups.
The department is also extending its overseas operations, stepping up its influence operations among a range of groups and institutions, including overseas Chinese groups, Chinese students studying overseas, civil society organizations, political lobby groups, political parties and lawmakers, academic institutions, think tanks, and the media, scholars have said in a series of reports last year.
Taiwan, officially still known as the Republic of China, has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, and has strongly rejected suggestions from Chinese President Xi Jinping that it "unify" with China, saying Beijing must first democratize.
Taiwan was ruled as a Japanese colony in the 50 years prior to the end of World War II, but was handed back to the 1911 Republic of China under the Kuomintang (KMT) government as part of Tokyo's post-war reparation deal. The KMT regime fled to the island after losing a civil war with Mao Zedong's communists in 1949.
The island began a transition to democracy following the death of Chiang's son, President Chiang Ching-kuo, in January 1988, starting with direct elections to the legislature in the early 1990s and culminating in the first direct election of a president, Lee Teng-hui, in 1996.
Reported by Tam Siu-yin for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.