An embattled Hong Kong government on Saturday backed down on a controversial plan to introduce national education classes after thousands gathered to protest the move a day ahead of local elections.

The plan — described by critics as an attempt to “brainwash” students with a pro-Communist Party message — triggered weeks of protests that culminated in an estimated 120,000 people, according to organisers, gathering on Friday in front of government offices, said organisers.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who cancelled a trip to the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) meeting in Russia to address concerns, said at a press conference on Saturday the government would not implement a 2015 deadline, as planned earlier, to make the introduction of the Beijing-supported curriculum mandatory.

“The amendment of this policy means that we are giving the authority to the schools,” he was quoted as saying by the South China Morning Post.

“The schools are given the authority to decide when and how they would like to introduce the moral and national education,” he said.

Mr. Leung added that the national education plan would not, however, be withdrawn. Schools would be given the choice of introducing the curriculum, which includes civics and moral classes. Mr. Leung was elected in March after winning 689 of 1,200 votes cast by an election committee of businessmen and political representatives.

Economic linkages

The Chief Executive, who has pushed for closer economic linkages with the mainland, is seen as having the backing of the business community.

On Sunday, Hong Kong will see local elections to elect an expanded 70-seat legislature. The election is being seen as particularly significant following the protests of recent weeks, which have reflected concerns in some sections about the increasing influence of Beijing and rising income inequality.

The legislature will also have to grapple with the issue of direct elections, slated to be introduced in 2017, which will allow the

seven million residents to have a say in choosing the Chief Executive.

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