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Chinese youth can't be blamed for their missing sense of history

Chinese youth can't be blamed for their missing sense of history

Chinese youth can't be blamed for their missing sense of history - they don't know any better

I was overwhelmed by mixed feelings of pride and shame on June 9, the day Hong Kong people, especially its young men and women, took to the streets in peaceful protest against the proposed extradition law. Pride in the extraordinary courage shown by the Hong Kong people, and shame because such courage and conviction has become so rare in Chinese youth.I am not talking about the people still living behind the Great Firewall, but those who study and work overseas and breathe the same fresh air as their Hong Kong counterparts.

In late May, the story of Frances Hui, a student from Hong Kong at Boston's Emerson College, hit the headlines. After getting an earful from a fellow passenger on a local bus for identifying herself as a Hong Kong person, rather than Chinese, she wrote a column in Emerson's student newspaper with the opening line: "I am from a city owned by a country I don't belong to."

Her article was greeted by an outcry from some mainland Chinese students, and not just those in Boston, either. Some left her threatening messages, and among them was this: "Whomever opposes my greatest China, no matter how far they are, must be executed."Boston is one of America's most liberal cities and Emerson, a prestigious private college, prides itself for being a place where "independent minds shape the world". It seems that the students who attacked Hui with their vitriol did not share any of those values.

Hui was not the first student who came under such attacks. On April 9, 2008, Grace Wang, a student at Duke University, tried to broker peace between two groups of student protesters on campus caught in a stand-off - one pro-Tibet and the other Chinese - and found herself on the receiving end of the hate.

When some of the Chinese students saw Wang speaking to both groups without clearly supporting their side, they started yelling and cursing at her. The face-palm moment came when they mentioned Chai Ling, a student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests who later went into exile in America. "Remember Chai Ling? All Chinese want to burn her in oil, and you look like her," the students shouted.

Wang's ordeal didn't end there. Both her parents' citizen ID numbers were posted on the internet, their safety threatened. "I was shocked, because this information could only have come from the Chinese police," Wang wrote in The Washington Post. Her parents went into hiding. Meanwhile, her high school in China revoked her diploma, and state media CCTV posted her photo on its website homepage with the caption, "the ugliest overseas student".

Hui was luckier by comparison. But that may change if Hong Kong passes the proposed legal changes that would allow fugitives to be extradited to the mainland.

Don't assume that overseas Chinese students never know right from wrong. They know it pretty well when it serves their purpose. Early this year, also in Duke University, a professor infuriated Chinese students with an email that urged them to make more effort to speak English, after some of them were heard "talking loudly" in Chinese in the student lounge areas.

The outraged students signed a petition to demand an investigation into the complaint, and the professor had to step down as director of a master's degree programme.

I don't bear any grudges against these students. It's absolutely their right to fight against possible racial bias. However, it would appear that while they are alert to such bias when they are the victims, they remain blind to the suffering of others. In February, a group of Chinese students at the University of Toronto in Scarborough mobilised to reject an elected student leader who happens to be of Tibetan descent and supports the "free Tibet" movement.

Also in February, another group of Chinese students at McMaster University in Ontario took very unusual actions against a Uygur activist they considered a separatist, who was invited to give a talk at the university on the mass internment of Muslims in Xinjiang. They showed up at the event, filmed it and took photos that they later sent to the Chinese consulate in Toronto.

The patriotic fervour and double standards of these Chinese students have raised eyebrows around the world. But they deserve sympathy rather than approbation. Most of these college students in the West were born after 1989 and have known nothing but economic prosperity. They have been exposed to the Communist Party's nationalist propaganda their whole lives. How else could the world expect them to think and behave?

Above all, Chinese propagandists have the best ally - the students' parents, who, after enduring their share of political oppression, chose to protect their children by hiding from them the darker side of history.

VIPKid, an online education company funded by US investors, has terminated the contracts of some American teachers on the grounds that they had touched on "sensitive topics" such as the Tiananmen Square student protests and the Tibet issue in classes. A public policy officer at VIPKid told me that it was the parents who reported the teachers to the company and asked for some content to be censored in class.

These students, who are between five and 12, are the unfortunate victims of the "curse of history". In the current debate on the ways Chinese civilisation differs from others, we should remember that a civilised society upholds justice and respects human rights, including the freedom of expression.

By standing up for their rights and the rule of law, Hongkongers can perhaps blaze a trail for other Chinese.

Billy Huang has served media outlets in Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States for more than 20 years.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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