By James Pomfret
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong's government withdrew plans for a compulsory Chinese school curriculum on Saturday after tens of thousands took to the streets in protest at what they said was a move to "brainwash" students.
The decision by the island's pro-China Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to make the curriculum voluntary for schools came a day before elections for just over half the seats of Hong Kong's 70-seat legislature.
"We don't want the recent controversy to affect the operations of schools, nor do we want to see the harmony of the education environment to be affected," said Leung, noting the move was a "major policy amendment".
"They have made a substantive concession," said Joseph Wong, a former senior government official and political scientist.
"One may say it's too late, but better late than never. I think it will defuse the issue, maybe not entirely, but at least it will remove a lot of the tensions ... This is a great day for Hong Kong's civil society."
For the past week, thousands of protesters have ringed Hong Kong's government headquarters, camped out in tents, dressed in black and chanting for the withdrawal of the curriculum they said was Communist Party propaganda aimed at indoctrinating new generations of primary and secondary school students.
The education issue is one of several key issues for voters along with housing and the increasing number of visitors from the mainland coming into the city.
Leung was sworn in in July after being elected by a committee filled with business professionals, tycoons and Beijing loyalists. Hong Kong's seven million people have no say in who becomes their chief executive.
A strong showing by the opposition pro-democracy camp would make it more difficult for the chief executive to pass policies in a fractious legislature.
The polls may be a chance for voters to express anti-China sentiment, with many protesters still camped outside the government headquarters after the apparent back-down, still unsatisfied with the policy change.
"This is a cunning move to put the ball in the people's court. Even though they say schools are free to choose ... in the coming years I expect the government and Beijing to use hidden means to try to pressure more and more schools to take up the scheme," said young activist Mak Chi-ho.
"What Hong Kong needs is real universal suffrage."
Hong Kong is a freewheeling capitalist hub which enjoys a high degree of autonomy, but Beijing has resisted public pressure for full democracy and has maintained a high degree of influence in political, media and academic spheres.
The past week's protests have included hunger strikes and the parading of a replica of the Goddess of Democracy statue which was erected in Beijing's Tiananmen Square during the 1989 demonstrations and crackdown.
The latest outbreak of discontent represents yet another headache for Beijing, after Chinese President Hu Jintao appealed in July for Hong Kong to maintain unity, with Beijing's own leaders grappling with an imminent leadership transition.
(Additional reporting by Alex Frew McMillan; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Robin Pomeroy)