HONG KONG (AP) — Tens of thousands including teachers and parents pushing strollers took to Hong Kong streets Sunday to protest the upcoming introduction of Chinese patriotism classes they fear will lead to brainwashing, the latest sign of growing discomfort over Beijing's influence in the semiautonomous territory.
Students and pro-democracy activists were among those who marched to the Hong Kong government's headquarters to protest the new curriculum, which authorities are encouraging schools to begin using when classes resume in September.
They fear the classes will be used to brainwash children into supporting China's Communist Party. The government has denied that and says they are aimed at building Chinese national pride.
The controversy flared up after reports emerged that pro-Beijing groups published a booklet for use in classes that extolled the virtues of one-party rule.
"China wants Hong Kong's next generation to know how great it is and not know the bad stuff," said Chan Yip-Long, a 9-year-old primary school student. "The booklet is very biased, so I am opposing it."
The protest is the latest sign of growing discontent in Hong Kong over mainland China's increasing influence 15 years after the freewheeling financial center was returned to China by Britain following more than a century of colonial rule. Tensions have also been stoked by growing economic inequality and as well as an influx of free-spending wealthy Chinese, who are seen as driving up property prices and shop rents.
Hong Kongers are also angry about stunted democratic development. Beijing has pledged that Hong Kong can elect its own leader in 2017 and all legislators by 2020, though no roadmap has been laid out. On July 1, tens of thousands of people protested over the city's new leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who was chosen by an elite pro-Beijing committee and is widely suspected of having close ties to the Communist Party.
Sunday's demonstrators carried placards and banners and shouted slogans calling for the government to withdraw its plan to introduce the Moral and National Education curriculum.
The government has stood firm and plans to make the subject compulsory in primary schools starting in 2015 and in secondary schools the year after, although schools are encouraged to start using it earlier.
According to the curriculum guidelines, students will learn about China's political leaders, the efforts and contributions they have made and the difficulties and challenges they face, as well as how to "speak cautiously," practice self-discipline and get along well with others in a rational and respectful manner.
Police estimated 32,000 people turned out for Sunday's protest. Despite blazing heat, many parents were there, pushing infants and young children in strollers. A group of young girls chanted, "We want the truth, we don't want brainwashing."