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A Cadre of Hong Kong Kids Unrolls Red Carpet for China

The hallways at Pui Kiu Middle School echo with the bustle of students changing classes, all dressed alike in neat blue-and-gray uniforms. It is a normal scene in Hong Kong's better-off fee-charging schools.

The only thing out of the ordinary is the display of old black-and-white photographs on the wall of the student union. They commemorate the May 4 Movement of 1919, one of the turning points in modern Chinese history.

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"There is not much difference between our school and [government] schools, but here the students are freer to talk about their own country," says vice principal Anna Yip.

The country she is referring to is China - not Britain, whose rule over Hong Kong ends next year.

Since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, there has always been a small but close-knit "patriotic" or pro-Beijing community in Hong Kong. It had its own schools, like Pui Kiu, its own newspapers, and even its own department stores.

With the impending handover of Hong Kong to China only a year away, the left-wing community is beginning to become part of the mainstream.

Pui Kiu principal Tsang Yok-sing probably spends more of his time these days at the headquarters of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong than at the school. As head of the alliance, the largest pro-Beijing political group, Mr. Tsang ran unsuccessfully for the territorial legislature in last September's elections, the freest in Hong Kong's history. He is often the media's first choice in seeking sound bites on China's position on the territory or its future after the transition date, July 1, 1997. He writes frequent opinion pieces in the mainstream press.

One of his favorite topics is the failure of schools to inculcate a feeling of patriotism for China. Of course, anything relating to politics has often been a touchy subject. For people in Hong Kong, many of them refugees from the civil war, it meant either supporting the defeated Taiwan nationalists or the Communists. "Most people simply had nothing to do with either," Tsang says.

When Tsang was in school in the 1960s, most instruction in Chinese history stopped with the Opium War in 1861, when Britain took control of Hong Kong Island. Civics lessons were simple exercises in how to obey the law or how the post office functioned. All of the instruction was in English and usually taught from a colonial perspective.

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Tsang's younger brother, Tak-sing, wrote a pamphlet calling for more balanced history lessons, which he distributed around the playground. Arrested at age 17, he was imprisoned for two years for distributing inflammatory literature (an episode his brother often mentions when the talk turns to press freedom post-1997).

Tak-sing Tsang is now the editor of Ta Kung Po, one of the two pro-China daily newspapers.

Many people like the Tsangs, who came of age in the 1960s, look back on those years with nostalgia. After the Cultural Revolution, pragmatism ruled. "People said even [Chinese leader] Deng Xiaoping sends his children abroad for schooling, so why should we support the pro-Beijing schools?" Many Marxist schools closed for lack of support.

During the 1970s, the government began pouring money into education, establishing Hong Kong's free schools and subsidizing many private ones - though for political reasons not leftist schools like Pui Kiu. Meanwhile, the economy had begun to take off, costs were rising, and Pui Kiu fond it difficult to recruit and hold teachers.

SINCE the signing of the Joint Declaration in 1984, returning Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, conditions have improved considerably. Differences between the left-wing and mainstream schools have narrowed. History is now taught in all schools up to the decade-long Cultural Revolution that began in 1966.

Politics is no longer a strictly taboo subject, although some subjects are still sensitive. In 1994, the secretary for education was criticized when he urged the removal of mention of the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 from history texts. Tsang himself is welcome to speak even at government-funded or Christian schools. The Pui Kiu now receives government funds, and its graduates find places in government universities.

All this makes some supporters wonder if the leftist schools have lost their reason for being. "We had a clear mission in the 1950s and '60s. We felt a need to teach another generation to know and love their country. Now perhaps we have another mission in preparing students for the return to China," Tsang says.

These days the students wearing the blue-and-gray uniforms come from all segments of society, not just children of leftist trade unionists, officials at the Bank of China, or other pro-Beijing families. People are less sensitive to where they send their children so long as they get a good education.

Indeed, almost the only thing that distinguishes Pui Kiu from any other school in Hong Kong is that it honors China's National Day, Oct. 1.

And pretty soon, every school in Hong Kong will be doing that.

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