Hong Kong student protesters gesture to show their resistance to new "national education" reforms on Monday. Photo: Reuters

The psychological and political gaps between Hong Kong and mainland China look larger than ever.

A row between opposition activists -- including student, teacher, and parent organizations -- and the new government of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is spotlighting major differences between defenders and critics of Hong Kong's greater integration with the mainland.

At the heart of the issue is a divergence of opinions over new public education reforms, which are calling into question issues of Hong Kong identity and the city's trust of the mainland government.

The Hong Kong government, with backing from Beijing, is now moving to introduce new content into public school curriculums, called "Moral and National Education".

The government says the aim is to improve understanding of China for Hong Kong's youth.

Opponents say the move is nothing short of "brainwashing" for students to become more loyal to the Communist Party.

In the face of criticism and hesitation from schools, the government has changed its initial deadlines, which mandated that all primary schools would implement curriculum changes by September 2012; all secondary schools were to implement changes by 2013. Instead, public schools now have a three-year period to introduce the program, which will become compulsory by 2016.

Descriptions from the government council on guidelines for implementation, dating back to April 2012, said that "Since the return of sovereignty [with Hong Kong's handover to China from Great Britain in 1997], promoting national education and enhancing students' understanding of their country and national identity have become a common goal of primary and secondary schools."

Chief Executive Leung announced on Thursday that he would cancel a major trip to the APEC Summit in Vladivostok due to domestic issues, likely referring to the education protests at home.

Thousands of demonstrators have camped outside government headquarters since late August, and a small group of about a dozen have even started a hunger strike.

Leung has told the public that the new courses are meant to promote understanding of the mainland, not increase obedience. Leung has also said that he will not back down on implementing the reforms.

Donald Tsang, Hong Kong's prior chief executive, had spoken as early as 2010 about the need to replace "civic" education with "national" education.

Despite a period in 2008, when surveys conducted by newspapers and universities in Hong Kong showed that the area was experiencing a historically high percentage of self-identified Chinese, more recent polls show that fewer have identified themselves as "Chinese citizens" (opting instead to choose Hong Kong citizens, or global citizens) than at any time since 1997. Hong Kong has operated under the "one country, two systems" model since then as a Special Administrative Region of China, supposedly having a vast degree of domestic autonomy while foreign policy and defense issues are dictated by Beijing.

Tensions between mainland tourists and Hong Kong residents, inflating housing prices (driven in part by mainland buyers), an increasing income gap, and persistent mistrust of the Communist Party and its influence over Hong Kong politics are all contributing to new feelings of resentment against Beijing. The process of integration has made little heaway over the past 15 years -- and for Beijing that's all the more reason to support new initiatives meant to change people's minds.

Protests in Hong Kong against the reforms drew tens of thousands on July 30. Activist groups claimed as many of 90,000, though police said protesters only numbered only slightly more than 30,000.

The government council's guidelines on the new curriculum highlight goals for improving morality, positive attitudes, self-recognition, judgment, identity, and responsible decision-making. Those moral qualities included "Chinese values" such as "benevolence, righteousness, courtesy and wisdom," but also an interest to "foster universal values, including peace, benevolence, justice, freedom, democracy, human rights."

Talk about universal values has been politically sensitive in China, especially as the Communist Party has tried to improve its soft-power image amid U.S. foreign policy statements on the need to spread "universal values" across the world. Critics of the U.S. in China say the catchphrase is nothing but a veiled attack on China's political system and human rights record.

But if that seems like the curriculum is a fair approach presenting multiple perspectives, opponents in Hong Kong aren't convinced.

They take as evidence that a booklet distributed by Hong Kong's National Education Services Center, titled "The China Model," will become the new standard on thinking about mainland politics. The booklet describes the Communist Party as "progressive, selfless and united", and makes little mention of major political upheavals in past decades.

Critics say the changes are meant to tell people how to think, rather than to let them decide on their own.

Kerry Kennedy, of the Center for Governance and Citizenship at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, told the South China Morning Post that education should value "exploration, critical thinking, problem solving." Kennedy says that parents are scared by the idea of schools telling their children "this is what you must think."

Others however, say the reaction is overblown and misdirected.

Peter Cheung, associate professor at the University of Hong Kong's Department of Politics and Public Administration, told CNN that "the government's approach actually allows for a lot of autonomy on the part of the schools to teach the curriculum," leaving it "up to the schools to teach what they want to teach with reference to these very general guidelines."

While some are arguing that the new curriculum will help white-wash historical mistakes and tragedies in China, others are saying that teachers and schools will have a large degree of freedom in what subjects they choose to touch upon, including the ones unfriendly to the mainland government.

The Hong Kong Education Bureau says that "the China Model" handbook was not sanctioned as representative educational material, calling it "misleading to say that the handbook is a brainwashing tool of the Government." It adds that "Teachers should not avoid discussion of any events or issues."

Even so, those comments have failed to assuage the concerns of those gathered outside government offices in downtown Hong Kong, fearful that new policies are another step toward snuffing out the unique poltiical and social qualities that set the region apart from the rest of China.