A question of timing

Overseas Property | Cara Chen 26 May 2020

Once again, the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education has become the subject of public debate. A question in the history exam on May 14 set off the storm.

The controversial question focused on Sino-Japanese relations in the first half of the 20th century, including during World War II.

The first text was an article written in 1905 by a former head of the University of Tokyo welcoming Chinese students to study law and politics in Japan to reform the Qing Dynasty. The second contained excerpts of a contract from a Japanese company promising support to the Republic of China's provisional government.

Candidates had to answer the question: "Japan did more good than harm to China in the period 1900 to 1945. Do you agree? Explain your answer using the two readings and your own knowledge."

The question was criticized by the education bureau and some state-owned media outlets as being biased and hurting the feelings of Chinese who remember Japanese atrocities during the war.

On May 22, the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority invalidated the exam question following education secretary Kevin Yeung Yun-hung's call for a review. Detractors see Beijing's pressure on the education bureau to rein in Hong Kong's academic freedom.

A researcher from the department of Japanese studies at the University of Hong Kong said that Beijing's response was expected. "The way the Second Sino-Japanese War is taught is linked to China-Japan relations, its policy toward Japan as well as the fact that right-wing Japanese politicians used history to provoke China in the 1990s,"said the researcher, who wants to remain anonymous. "This is the consensus in academic circles."

The way the question was worded may have enraged Chinese officials, but Beijing's response had nothing to do with cracking down on academic freedom, she said.

"The main problem with the question is the division of history into set periods for the purpose of study. It would have been okay to discuss if Japan did more good than harm to China before and during the early years of the Republic of China's establishment because the positive influence of Japan on China's modernization during this period is not in doubt, even in mainland academic circles, she added.

"But then fascism and nationalism swept over Japan, which was a harrowing experience for neighboring countries and regions, such as China and South Korea," the researcher said. "If the question was on a South Korean exam, the official's blame would have been tougher."

On May 17, a group of secondary school history teachers issued an open letter urging the authorities to trust the teaching profession and reconsider its response to the controversial exam question.

" 'The two readings' in this question cover the years 1905 to 1912. That means if the students want to analyze Sino-Japanese relations between 1900 and 1945, they need to apply their own knowledge of the 1913 to 1945 period; that is, the period from the early Republic of China to the Second Sino-Japanese War," the letter said.

Teachers should discuss with students major historical events from 1900 to 1945 while teaching about the period, according to the education bureau's Chinese history curriculum and assessment guide.

The letter argues that students should have some understanding of major historical developments in the relationship between China and Japan between 1900 and 1945 after three years of study, and be able to use their "own knowledge" to make an informed judgment.

This mismatch between the readings and the question was just part of the controversy, said Ernest Leung, a PhD student from the department of Japanese studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

A student of East Asian economic history, Leung said the exam question is "unqualified" because it conveys an "outdated conception of history," which has no use in teaching and studying history. He held that curriculum designers are equally responsible.

It's "lazy and inaccurate" for DSE history curriculum setters to start the historical period covered arbitrarily from 1900 and end it in 1945, Leung said.

"If we want to comprehensively analyze the modern China-Japan relations, the period should start at least from the Japanese invasion of Taiwan in 1874, and finish with the resumption of Sino-Japanese relations in the 1970s" Leung said.

He said the simplistic division of historical periods in the curriculum and the DSE exam might lead the students to have an unrigorous conception of history.

Analyzing macrohistory should avoid binary oppositions, he said, adding that the wording of the question - black or white thinking about whether something "did more good than harm" or "did more harm than good" - is an oversimplification that is out of place in historical thinking.

"If history teaches something that has nothing to do with real history, and students practice warped historical methodology and historical perspectives to gain marks, how can the high school history curriculum be the basis for further study in college and beyond?" he asked.

Controversy around the Second Sino-Japan War continued in the DSE's Chinese history exam on May 21. A question based on two war-era propaganda posters asked students to answer whether they agreed with the viewpoint of the second one, a cartoon of Japanese soldiers celebrating with the caption: "Japanese military in northern and central China have been completely connected."

Following the "political controversy" over the previous history exam, teacher Chan Yan-kai said at a conference that he hoped the government would return calm to the academic field.

cara.chen@singtaonewscorp.com

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