Education and the frontline
Young people in Hong Kong (HK) grow up with liberal values and expectations in an international city that enjoys its freedom outside of China’s Great Firewall. It's not clear whether this is due to the influence of their parents, SAR's education system, the ambience of HK itself, or some other factor. These liberal values and expectations can especially be seen in a number of protest actions that have taken place in the SAR since the 1997 handover, and events giving rise to political turmoil can be interpreted as attempts by Beijing to exert greater control over the territory.
It's clear that the CCP wishes to control all its citizen's minds, and that it's in this fight for the long term. What the CCP is doing is more insidious that controlling the media, censorship or publishing propaganda to manipulate the narrative [Follow this link to a video about how China is using Russian brainwashing tactics]. In January 2020 CCP announced new guidelines banning overseas teaching materials. In future, authors, publishers and teachers are required to promote the "spirit of Xi Jinping Thought" in all teaching materials used from primary through to senior high school in mainland China. In November 2019 the CCP's Central Committee unveiled a plan for 'Patriotic Education' in the mainland, HK and Macau. The party intends to push its ideological indoctrination through schools and universities, extending to people from all walks of life through the activities of the United Front Work Department.
Schools, curriculum, textbooks and teachers themselves have come under recent attack in HK, showing that the field of Education truly is the frontline for CCP. Their aim is to turn Education in HK into a tool of the state, to enhance its control and brainwashing of the populous. In what can only be regarded as political warfare, the long term aim is to assimilate HK as part of China. It's illegal, of course, under China's policy of one country, two systems, but the CCP tends to act as a law unto itself.
State-sponsored moves like these, initiated without public consultation, fly in the face of United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNUDHR) Article 26, which gives parents the right to choose the kind of education given to their children [See the wording of Article 26 below]. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that a further impetus behind recent protests in HK is specific opposition to CCP initiatives.
In 2012, there was an attempt by HK authorities to incorporate 'Moral and National Education' in the curriculum of the local school system. At the time it was thought that inclusion of topics on China’s history, culture and national identity would help win the hearts and minds of HK’s young people. However, the idea did not go down well, and students, parents and teachers across the city rejected the idea considering it nothing more than brainwashing and an attack on their identity as Cantonese citizens of HK.
The energy that quickly gathered to oppose the government initiative on education thrust a 15year old student, Joshua Wong, into a role as leader of an activist group named Scholarism which then spearheaded mass rallies and a 10-day siege of the government headquarters known as the Legislative Council (Legco) in Admiralty. Faced with growing opposition, C.Y. Leung, who was Chief Executive (CE) at the time announced that he would make the proposed National Curriculum an optional subject for schools, and that he wished to concentrate government efforts on housing, poverty and other livelihood issues.
It's ironic that the issues Leung opted to focus on in 2012 have also been considered in some quarters part of the underlying cause of the political unrest in Hong Kong in 2019. This view, however, plays into the CCP's preference for economic development and social harmony over civil and political rights [See our blog on the way Human Rights are viewed differently in China compared with how they are considered elsewhere).
In 2014 there were again major protests in HK known widely as "the Umbrella Movement". With an election for the SAR's CE ahead of them, this time the demonstrations were about demands for reform of HK’s electoral system. A proposal to grant universal suffrage in elections for the city’s leader, but to only allow voters to select from a list of candidates vetted by Beijing, was rejected by protesters. Protests gained in size after clashes between police and mostly young demonstrators who tried to reclaim a public square that had been closed off after the 2012 protests against national education. Student protesters occupied the streets around government buildings and office towers in the financial center, choking traffic and rendering major thoroughfares impassable. This is much the same tactic used by protesters exercising civil disobedience in the 2019 unrest.
There's also another similarity with history here in that the 2019 protests first began in response to the CE's proposal and attempts to pass legislation that would have allowed people to be extradited from Hong Kong to mainland China, but then morphed into much greater public demonstrations about police brutality and wider governance issues. It's this inability or reluctance of HK's leaders to respond immediately and appropriately to the will of the people as demonstrated in public protests that has fomented wider unrest in the SAR, and firmly put the protesters' "5 demands" at the forefront of global attention [see our take on the 5 demands].
One should not assume that events in 2012 and 2014 are the only political events in the lead up to the 2019 crisis. History is a rich fabric, and events and people that make it don't always follow a regular or linear pattern. There was other civil unrest in HK in both 2003 and 2016, but they did not thrust teachers and learners into the frontline of conflict with the SAR's government in the manner of the latest unrest.
In July, 2019 former HK leader, Tung Chee-hwa, blamed the Liberal Studies subject taught in secondary schools for encouraging violent protests among young people. That subject became compulsory for senior secondary students in 2009 whilst he was CE. It requires students to study, debate and write about contemporary social issues in order to develop critical thinking and communication skills. Although Chinese media publicised this idea, and HK's pro-Beijing legislators joined the anti-Liberal Studies bandwagon, it was not a view shared by either students or educators in HK.
Other than that there were pronouncements made by authorities and other events that kept those in the education sector on tenterhooks. Firstly, early in June 2019 the largest teachers union, the HK Professional Teachers' Union (PTU), called for a class boycott in response to the Extradition Bill. In response, the Education Department Bureau (EDB) condemned the call for a boycott and indicated that politics should be kept out of schools. By August many teachers had joined regular street protests in support of the young people involved, and later the teachers themselves were accused of actively encouraging youngsters to take part in demonstrations.
By September 2019, as students returned to school after their summer break they continued joining protests and many took part in class boycotts. The concern that the Liberal Studies curriculum was the cause of ongoing protests by young people had grown into broader issues about the textbooks used in schools and flaws in HK's competitive education system.
The matter of school textbooks was finally addressed by the HK government in early January 2020 when it set up a review mechanism to oversee teaching materials and textbooks used in schools. While it was purportedly an attempt to ensure that material with a subjective political bias would not be presented to students, it drew a mixed response. Although some parents were satisfied, others were distrustful and said teachers themselves need to be monitored. Ip Kin-yuen, the HK lawmaker who represents the education sector in Legco, expressed concern that under the current social unrest reviews of textbooks may involve political censorship. He urged the EDB to provide more details of the textbook review plan to eliminate citizens’ concerns. It's also interesting to note here, that the CCP published new guidelines for school textbooks on the mainland in December 2019 banning all foreign-published texts in primary and secondary schools, ensuring it has control of young people's thinking.
In December a number of HK teachers were getting into trouble for either their direct involvement in anti-government protests, or for expressing their opinions on the social unrest in Facebook accounts or other social media. One teacher was arrested for possession of tools "fit for unlawful purposes": namely two pairs of scissors, a pair of pliers and a spanner. He was suspended from teaching duties pending further investigation. The EDB urged school principals to assess whether it was safe for academic staff accused of disorder-related offences to continue in their teaching roles. A number of students were arrested on similar Police charges of weapons possession.
At times in the SAR it has seemed as though being a young person or wearing black clothes was a criminal offence, with many youngsters being stopped, questioned and searched by Police on the way to school, or even at the school gates. [See our blog: We live and learn in HK] Some students have not been treated leniently by either the police or the judiciary. University students were kicked out of their graduation ceremony for disrespecting the national anthem.
On the 12th December the HK Secretary for Education, Kevin Yeung, warned teachers against misconduct that might effect their employment. He reported that the EDB had received more than 100 complaints against teachers, that some complaints had been upheld and others were still being investigated. A pro-establishment legislator, Ann Chiang Lai-wan of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of HK said schools were not effectively monitoring the conduct of their teachers. She even urged the EDB to provide subsidies for schools to install CCTV cameras in their classrooms.
A week later the PTU went on the defensive saying the EDB had acted unjustly since at least five HK teachers accused of protest-related misconduct were not given a chance to defend themselves before they were informed that investigations against them had been substantiated. The union also found the investigation process was “inappropriate and unfair” as it felt the teachers should also know who were making the complaints.
Piling on the pressure felt by schools and teachers, the HK EDB chief went on the attack again on 30th December, 2019. In a direct threat levelled at school principals he indicated that they could be fired if they acted in support of teachers under investigation over protests. In response to the spat, Education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen commenting in a television interview noted that Yeung’s remarks amounted to directly pressuring schools to fall in line with the government’s political stance, expanding “white terror” in the sector.
On 8th January, 2020 the Education secretary warned teachers that their online comments are subject to regulations governing their employment. He emphasised that teachers must adhere to the Code for the Education Profession of HK while the control of schools and teaching therein are covered by the Education Ordinance. He indicated that although comments on social media platforms may reflect the moral values teachers hold, most complaints against teachers involve their inappropriate remarks on social media. Such comments reportedly include hate speech, provoking violence and foul language. Given that at least 80 teachers and teaching assistants had been arrested during
anti-government protests he again urged schools to suspend those arrested for serious crimes.
The PTU and teachers quickly responded to the EDB Chief's comments, branding it "white terror", and pointing out that it amounted to a restriction to freedom of speech. The union organised a Friday night (3rd January, 2020) rally against the HK government’s handling of protest-related complaints towards educators that was attended by thousands of teachers and supporters.
An experienced secondary schoolteacher at the rally surnamed Yuen, in his 40s, who has taught science for more than 20 years, said he believed the Education Bureau was “threatening principals” when it said they could be removed from their positions if they did not cooperate with investigations on teachers. He noted that when there were previous cases of principals abusing their power over teaching staff, the EDB had never said they might use their powers to suspend the principals. In contrast now, when there were no actual cases of principals being uncooperative with the EDB investigations, they were talking about exercising their power to dismiss them.
Still the Education Secretary came back at the educators' union claiming it was they who were creating "white terror" in the education sector, by not supporting the EDB, spreading disinformation and maintaining ties with “a small group of troublemakers”.
In a further blow to educational freedom in HK, one of several school debating competitions run in the SAR fell foul of the EDB. The organising body of the Hong Kong Schools Debate Federation, announced on 11 January, 2020 that about 20 schools had pulled out of its annual competition, reducing the number of participating groups to 98. Although the schools did not give specific reasons for dropping out of the debate competition, some school administrations had told teachers and debate team coaches to pull out because some debate topics were deemed too political. Amongst a range of topics covering economic and political issues a few teams had been asked to debate whether “Restructuring the police force does more good than harm” and “Hong Kong people should fight for Hong Kong independence”.
Ignoring both the independence of schools and the competition organisers, the EDB had contacted many schools asking if they were taking part in the competition, and urged them “not to debate sensitive issues during sensitive times”. In some cases, adding a further authoritarian twist, teachers were told to submit a list of names of team members to the bureau if pupils refused to pull out. It's not clear whether the EDB had received the names of any students, or what use the EDB intended to make of the students' names. However. the debate competition organisers reported that there had been no complaints from parents about the choice of debate topics.
Amidst the bickering between the factions, some parents have been growing increasingly wary of the local education system. For mainland parents especially, the worry has been that their kids will be pressured by peers and teachers to join the protests and risk being ostracized if they don’t. Some HK financial elites have shunned local schools as protests mount, moving their children to international schools in the SAR or even sending their children to boarding schools overseas.
It is not right for the EDB to overstep its role as an executive branch of the legislature. The Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung acted in a threatening manner, called into question the professionalism of teachers and principals while undermining the relationship between the EDB and the largest teacher union in HK. We have to ask why Yeung made his 30 December 2019 threat to fire HK Principals when speaking with mainland media in Shanghai, rather than in HK. These statements made by the current Secretary of Education amount to attempts of coercion of academic institutions, teachers, parents and students - which under UN CAT is a form of torture. The EDB has not set a good example as a civil service employer, plain to see for students and parents alike. This is on top of blunders surrounding the CE's anti-mask law, and the EDB's statements to schools and requests to report students which politicised schools that were meant to maintain neutrality (See our blog on the politicisation of young people).
Indications that the EDB is intent on manipulating school curriculum and teaching materials show that the HK government, aligned with the CCP, has no qualms about overriding the existing rights of parents to choose the kind of education they want for their children. The EDB is also making preparations to carry out inspections of unregistered or private schools in measures that will enforce government regulations.
In recent months, in universities across the globe it has become more apparent than ever the impact the CCP has on both themselves as educational institutions and their students who come from China. Academics should be free to do their work without fear of reprisals or intimidation from those who disagree with their ideas or politics. Places of learning in HK, like its universities, should never have become actual physical battlegrounds between Police and protesters. We note that two HK academics who were convicted and who have already served prison time for their role in the 2014 Occupy protests are now under further investigation by their respective university employers. We are reminded of what happened to academics in China during the cultural revolution, and believe there is no place for repression in a humane society that respects fundamental human rights and dignity. The government of HK has lost sight of this, given its continuing betrayal of the people.
Teachers in HK have a difficult task, on the one hand being mindful of student welfare, of respecting the rights of their students, while on the other hand serving their employer and parents. This is a tug of war testing everyone's resolve and stamina, their values, beliefs and allegiances. It has meant tensions in HK schools have been surreal, and it seems that in the coming months things on the frontline may get worse before they get better.
Children are members of a family, and below the age of 18 years old are legally "minors." UNUDHR article 26.3 states that the parents have the first right ("prior right") to choose the kind of education for their children.
United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNUDHR)Article 26:
"1. Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
3. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children."
No-one in Hong Kong schools should ‘hold any activities to express their political stance,’ says education chief, as protest song banned, 8 July 2020, HKFP