Tens of thousands of people, including many students, joined the anti-national education protest at Civic Square.
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Is Liberal Studies driving young people’s social participation?

By James Fung and Cherry Wong

On a rainy day more than a year ago, a group of teenagers walked barefoot onto a stage in Tamar Park, in front of the government headquarters. Dressed in black, they crossed their arms high in the air to show their opposition to the government’s plan to mandate the Moral and National Education curriculum in Hong Kong’s schools.

By this time, they had already triggered a movement that cut across different sectors and generations of Hong Kong society and had started a hunger strike and occupation of an area outside the headquarters that became known as Civic Square.

They were members of Scholarism, a group of secondary school students, and their success in mobilizing support and media attention took many by surprise. Young people, and expressly secondary students had demonstrated their commitment to social participation and shown they were a force to be reckoned with.

Tens of thousands of people, including many students, joined the anti-national education protest at Civic Square
Tens of thousands of people, including many students, joined the anti-national education protest at Civic Square

This prompted many to ask what the driving force behind young people’s growing participation in social movements is. The introduction of Liberal Studies as a compulsory school subject has been suggested as a factor.

The subject came under the spotlight recently because it was accused of being too political by critics led by legislator Priscilla Leung Mei-fun. Leung suggested the subject should not be compulsory and that students should study Chinese history instead.

Along with Chinese Language, English Language and Mathematics, Liberal Studies was introduced as one of the compulsory core subjects in the New Senior Secondary Curriculum (NSS) in 2009. There are six modules, namely Personal Development and Interpersonal Relations, Energy Technology and the Environment, Hong Kong Today, Modern China and Globalization and Public Health. Through these modules, Liberal Studies aims to “broaden students’ knowledge base and enhance their social awareness through the study of a wide range of issues”, according to the Education Bureau.

Agnes Chow Ting, is a Form 6 student and a core member of the Scholarism. The 17 year-old says Liberal Studies does increase students’ social awareness. “Before the introduction of Liberal Studies as core subject, there were only three days on which teachers would discuss social issues with students. They are July 1, October 1, and June 4,” she says. Now students have a chance to discuss social issues at least two to three times a week.

Another core member of Scholarism, Tommy Cheung Sau-yin, who is now a second year student of Government & Public Administration at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, says that before the introduction of Liberal Studies, students were embarrassed to talk about politics. To do so would be to risk being labelled as a “freak”. Online posts about politics were considered strange because other people tended to discuss leisure activities and school matters, Cheung recalls.

Taking Liberal Studies makes it more comfortable and natural for students to discuss political issues, and perhaps participate in social movements as well. When Varsity reported on national education for its April 2011 issue, it interviewed Ivan Lam Long-yin who had set up a Facebook group to discuss Liberal Studies and national education. Lam went on to become one of the core members of Scholarism later that same year.

Tommy Cheung Sau-yin says Liberal Studies is often the first contact students have with current issues. But he adds that whether a student then goes on to participate is an individual decision, “Liberal Studies is the foundation while social participation is the building above,” he says.

Rosanna Tsang Yee-wai, an 18 year-old first year medical student agrees Liberal Studies helps her understand more about social issues. She says she has learnt to analyze a social issue from different perspectives after taking the classes. But she says it has not inspired her to take to the streets. “Political participation is not limited to demonstrations; there are other channels for you to express your views,” says Cheng, who prefers to express her opinions in online forums.

Teachers support the view that Liberal Studies has made students more aware of current affairs due to Liberal Studies.

Cheung Yui-fai has taught Liberal Studies for 15 years and is the Director of Education Research Department of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union. He says the traditional school subjects are detached from society. Schools are like hothouses where students need only concentrate on their exams.

Cheung says Liberal Studies opens a window for teachers and students to look beyond the hothouse and at the society around them. However, he does not think this necessarily leads to participation. For Cheung, the wider environment plays a bigger role. “If social conditions are good, students would cheer for the government instead of making criticisms after learning more about current issues.”

Cheung says social and economic conditions have worsened in recent years. The inflation rate and property prices have soared. It is more difficult for young people to make a living and buy an apartment. They are more pessimistic about the future.

At the same time, Cheung says the government does not listen to young people’s opinions and current government policies do not cater for their needs. It seems the government will give concessions to whichever groups make the most noise. Cheung believes it is against this backdrop that young people resort to taking part in direct action and social movements to voice their concerns.

This view is echoed by Joe Lo Tin-yau, the Head of Resource Centre for Interdisciplinary and Liberal Studies of Hong Kong Institute of Education. He says Liberal Studies is not solely responsible for the rise of young people’s social participation in recent years. Instead he points to advances in technology, the emergence of online civil society and the failures and inadequacies of government policies as examples of how the social environment has changed.

“The power of the online civil society is even greater than that of Liberal Studies,” says Lo. Social media gathers people with shared values and interests, creating an online civil society. This online civil society allows people of different backgrounds to communicate instantly and to organize social campaigns. The initial group of discussants then become the core members and invite or attract more people to join, generating a snowball effect.

Lo says another factor leading to greater social and political participation among the young is that political parties or non-governmental organizations (NGO) are holding more activities aimed at young people. There are now more secondary school and university students serving as volunteers or part-time staff of political parties and NGOs.

Although Liberal Studies make students more aware of society and politics, Lo says that awareness and knowledge is only maintained on an academic level. He believes few students have been inspired to participate just because of Liberal Studies. “Strong sensitivity towards current issues and social participation are two different things,” he says.

This has not stopped critics of Liberal Studies, such as legislator Priscilla Leung Mei-fun from being worried about the potential mobilizing power of Liberal Studies.

Leung has said there is too much emphasis on politics in the curriculum. In an interview with Varsity, she says some Liberal Studies teaching materials narrowly focus on specific social movements, such as the Occupy Central movement for universal suffrage. Leung says these materials feature a timetable for Occupy Central movement and equate striving for universal suffrage with Occupying Central.

What is more, she says the materials are “horrible, jumpy and with the purpose of mobilizing students.” Leung says it would be more appropriate to teach students about political theories instead.

Leung also worries that some Liberal Studies teachers may mobilize their students to go on the streets as part of their lessons. “Standards of Liberal Studies teachers vary. As there is no guideline, you can say whatever you like to say,” she says. She adds it would be wrong to encourage students to participate because 15 or 16 year-old secondary students may not be mature enough to understand the risks of taking part in a social action or movement.

Veteran Liberal Studies teacher Cheung Yui-fai dismisses these concerns. He says discussion of political action is only a small part of the course. Besides, the public examination does not expect or require students to adopt any particular stance. Instead students are assessed on their ability to analyse and debate an issue.

“If a teacher asks students to identify with a certain viewpoint, it would be disadvantageous to students’ public exam results. Teachers wouldn’t do that,” he says.

As for events such as the annual June 4th candlelight vigil, Cheung says students usually have their own ideas about participating without any classroom discussion.

He points out that when he does sometimes take his students to observe some protests and actions, such as the Anti-High Speed Rail Campaign in 2009, he lets them decide for themselves whether they want to go. Cheung sends out letters to their parents beforehand to inform them of the trip and holds debriefing sessions with his students afterwards.

He thinks it is important for students to experience and learn more about social issues. “If you deliberately avoid the students from understanding more about the issue, they cannot have a comprehensive view and the conclusion they reach by themselves is more likely to be biased.”

Lui Yu Chun, a former Liberal Studies Teacher and Principal of Graceyard Education Centre says the crux is how teachers introduce the social movement to the students. “If the teacher simply asks the students to participate without any explanation or clarification, he or she is merely mobilizing students,” he says.

However, if the teacher can clearly explain the rationale of the social participation in advance, and debrief students afterwards, it can be a learning experience. In these sessions, students discuss their observations and opinions with the teacher and they analyse what they have seen.

Perhaps most importantly, Lui says students should only take part in social movements on a voluntary basis.

Whether or not taking Liberal Studies really leads to a higher degree of social participation among young people, Lui says that those young people who participate are demonstrating the very things they are expected to learn from Liberal Studies, “They are willing to discuss, to listen to the opinions of others, and to respond. This is the critical and independent thinking that students are learning in Liberal Studies.”

Edited by Lindy Wong


  1. Liberal Studies is originally drving students to learn more about our society.Definitely,for some of the studentes who want to fight for a fairer society will participate in more movements as they’ve had a deeper insight into social affairs.It will never be a so-called “too political”as social participation and politics are inseparable.

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