Upbeat numbers for mainland exchange
Study tours to motherland with full-blown subsidy schemes have been drawing students like magnet
When it comes to a seven-day trip to Beijing, during which you can visit the Great Wall, the historic ruins of Yuanmingyuan Park, the Marco Polo Bridge and the National Museum; watch military shows in a People's Liberation Army garrison; and attend lectures at China's prestigious Tsinghua University; plus food, accommodation, insurance and two-way airfare. You may well think it's going to dig really deep in your pocket.
It's no wonder a price tag of $2,200 would be a big draw to many students like Miss Kays Kwong Wing-ki, a participant of Tsinghua University National Education Programme for Future Leaders in 2001.
Miss Kwong, 20, said an affordable price was a major incentive for many applicants including herself to get enrolled and travel during the summer break. But she said it was the trip itself that motivated her to make contribution by becoming a member of the programme's organising committee for the next year.
"Starting from today, we must love our country whole-heartedly and care for our country with tolerance instead of criticising it only. China would be much stronger if everyone of our 1.3 billion population shares this attitude to make contribution," she shared as she found herself more patriotic after the exchange with the professors at Tsinghua University.
Yet, skepticisms over the purposes of the subsidised study tours are present are heightened after the dispute over national education curriculum that resulted in tens of thousands of students protesting against the government last September.
A facebook group, which is created in 2010, has drawn more than 500 likes, with a name not only explicated its stance of anti-mainland study tours, but also asked a rhetoric question: "Are you willing to praise a Fascist regime?" in its description.
Miss Kwong responded by saying, "For those people who don't love their country because they don't know about it, they can choose not to participate. But there are always many more students who appreciate the opportunity."
While it remains debatable over the motives behind the study tours, it is undeniable mainland study tours have seen a substantial growth the over the past years.
According to the commission's working group on youth national education, 142 tours were subsidised in the 2012/13 academic year, which 9,800 local students are benefited. It has been a great leap forward when compared to 4,600 students a decade ago.
The number of subsidised tours surged to its peak of 214 when Beijing Olympics was held in 2008. And the amount of subsidies from the Home Affairs Bureua had doubled from $7 million in 2001 to $15.6 million in 2010, when one third of participants headed to the Shanghai Expo.
Besides direct sponsorship from the government, such study tours are normally assisted by Beijing. The programme to Tsinghua University, which Miss Kwong participated, is one of them "supported" by mainland's Ministry of Education and its liaison office.
One of the exponents is a tour called Hong Kong Uniformed Groups 10,000 Miles Friendship Trek, with a slogan of "Same Heart, Same Root".
The tour is jointly organised by 13 uniformed groups including Hong Kong Boys' Brigade and Hong Kong Red Cross, whose first batch of participants visited the Great Hall of the People and was greeted by Mr Hu Jintao in August 2002, seven months before he sworn in as China's top leader.
The exclusivity extends also to media coverage as the tour enjoys a separate section of the liaison office's website. The tours has its flag presentation ceremony officiated by the office's deputy director anf activities highly publicised by mainland media including state broadcaster China Central Television.
Mr Matthew Wong Wai-man, Deputy Commandant of Hong Kong Adventure Corps who co-organised the trek, said the latest tour was funded by youth commission with $1.1 million, almost a double of its normal maximum sponsorship of $600,000 for a single project.
According to the Lieutenant Colonel, there is a distinguishing characteristic about their tour. "We are uniformed groups, which means we have undertaken solid disciplinary training. On the other hand, we are not uniformed, because each of our 13 groups has its own culture."
He added that the "cultural diversity" of the tour was also reflected in the destinations. The tours went beyond the hot spots such as Beijing and Shanghai, but also to the grassland in Inner Mongolia in 2002, the Three Gorges Dam spanning the Yangtze River in Hubei in 2005, the ancient city of Xi'an in 2006, the hometown of Mr Mao Zedong in Hunan and the rural counties in Guizhou in 2012.
But he said the fundamental reason for the immense fund was the programme's large scale as they have more than 300 participants every year. Their sponsorship per participant is therefore still close to average rate of about $3,000.
He added the increase in the government funding has increased in the last few years was set off by the inflation rate in mainland.
When "brainwashing" accusations from the opponents were raised to Mr Wong, he commented in laughter, saying he thinks Hong Kong students are too smart to be brainwashed. He said he could not even speak highly of the living standards in Beijing with the hazardous smog there.
Mr Wong added that Beijing's role in the programme was simply to contact mainland departments to facilitate the visit, while the organiser's autonomy of decision-making was not intervened.
Reported by Song Cheng
Edited by Ada Yeung
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