Harsh lesson in skewing history

Editorial | Mary Ma 18 May 2020

The exam question asking Diploma of Secondary Education history paper candidates whether Japan had done more good than harm to China between 1900 and 1945 was outrageous.

Such a loaded and skewed question should never have been on the exam paper.

And it is both unprofessional and inconceivable that just two examples -both supportive of Japan - were used as source material for the question.

Criticism of the Examination and Assessment Authority is well deserved. And, in light of the strong condemnation by Beijing's Foreign Ministry and government mouthpiece People's Daily, it is a foregone conclusion that the exam authority will withdraw the hugely controversial question.

That might seem unfair on students who made the effort to answer the question to the best of their abilities. But, given that such an outcome is inevitable, it is paramount that the marking scheme is revised to minimize the impact on the affected students.

Modern Chinese history has always been a highly sensitive subject in Hong Kong. So I was taken aback to learn the authority had given the green light to a history question based on a premise that flew in the face of established historical fact.

Perhaps the whole thing could be judged in a different light if the candidates were university or more mature students accustomed to the format of academic debate. But it was totally unsuitable for teens at the DSE level.

It was not the first case in Hong Kong of twisting history. A primary school teacher was recently found deliberately lecturing a class during an online lesson that the Opium War - a war of aggression by Britain against China in 1840 - was started as a British attempt to ban opium in China.

In fact, it was started by Britain after its smuggling of opium into China was obstructed because of the anti-opium campaign launched by the government of the Qing Dynasty.

The exam authority itself must learn its lesson and avoid nationalistically sensitive issues at the DSE level. Such questions should be left for mature students to tackle.

A country's modern history is usually riddled with taboo subjects.

For example, Japan would unlikely ask its secondary students whether the atomic bombs dropped by the US near the end of the Second World War had done more good than harm to Japan.

Japanese are bound to assert it could not be good because many lives were lost due to the atomic bombs - although it may be argued that they shortened the war and, therefore, saved more lives than they had destroyed. In this perspective, would it have been more evil to allow the war to drag on?

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would doubtless wish to bury that part of his country's not-too-distant past.

By the same token, I doubt European leaders would readily agree to include a question on whether Nazi invasions had done more good than harm to Europe during the Second World War.

Two assessment development managers have resigned from the exam authority since the row erupted with Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung criticizing the exam authority. Even though it would be imprudent to link the resignations to the incident, the authority can help clear the clouds with a clarification.

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