HONG KONG: A history exam question asking Hong Kong students to assess colonial Japan's occupation of China sparked a rebuke by Beijing on Friday (May 15) and reignited a row over academic freedoms in the semi-autonomous city.

The criticism comes as Hong Kong's schools and universities – some of the best in Asia – become the latest ideological battleground in a city convulsed by political unrest.

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China's foreign ministry and state media rounded on a university entrance exam question that asked students to decide whether Japan's invasion of China from 1900 to 1945 "did more good than harm".

"Hong Kong's education sector must not become a chicken coop without a roof," the foreign ministry wrote on the Facebook page of its Hong Kong office.

"Hong Kong's (university exam) question leads students to be traitors," wrote the pugnaciously nationalist Global Times newspaper on Friday.

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Japan's colonial occupation of parts of China between 1900 and 1945 was brutal and led to millions of deaths.

Mainland China's schools and universities are strictly controlled, with little deviation from communist party lines tolerated.

Semi-autonomous Hong Kong has a much freer system that encourages debate and analysis.

But education is becoming a new target for Beijing after seven months of huge and often violent democracy protests rocked Hong Kong last year.

READ: China says Hong Kong will never be calm unless violent protesters removed

The chicken coop metaphor was used by Hong Kong's pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam last week as she warned liberal studies, a secondary school class that teaches critical thinking, helped fuel last year's unrest.

The subject has become a bete noire for Chinese state media and pro-Beijing politicians who have called for more openly patriotic education.

Lam has promised to unveil plans to reform the subject later in the year.

Hong Kong's education bureau criticised the city's exam board, saying Read More – Source