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HKEAA manager: 'Incident indicative of HK's fall'

Former HKEAA Manager Tells Insider History Exam Controversy Story –“Incident Indicative of HK’s Fall”

Author: HK Columns (Translated) | Publish Date: 22.12.20 | Last Update Date: | 2020-12-24 02:30:47

原文:【首度開腔】離職考評局經理楊穎宇博士 親述歷史科試題內情始末 「香港墮落嘅指標性事件」

An afternoon in May, Hans Yeung Wing-yu sat in front of a computer with grief and indignation at Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority Assessment Centre. On the screen were scanned exam scripts; he had to strike through and mask the lengthy answers hand-written by candidates with ball-point pens. There were 270 scripts processed by him, together with those done by his colleagues, there were 5000 scripts with answers masked.

Yeung, 50yo, had worked at Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA) for 15 years. This was the moment he found most humiliating.

After several months, Yeung still could not hold back tears when he spoke of this incident, “The longest answer I covered was 6-page long, I was just talking about this question (sub-question). You had me mask all their answers, it’s really heartless…”

This May [2020], a question about Sino-Japanese relation in the history exam of Hong Kong’s university entrance exam - Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) was “disqualified”. Yeung - former assessment development manager of history was at the eye of the storm. He resigned subsequently. After he left the position last month, he accepted an interview for the first time and spoke of the greatest storm in the history of education in Hong Kong with CitizenNews.

The formation of the storm can be traced back to 2017 - he was noticed because of a “valiant” exam question in the history exam paper then; then he received anonymous complaints about his remarks on Facebook last year; on the day before the history exam this year, some pro-Beijing newspaper published his remark about the Sino-Japanese relation on Facebook. These coincidence made him feel he was placed in a trap, which in the end caused him to flee where he had worked for 15 years.

Yeung, a holder of a PhD, has now been avoided in the education sector. Even hiring him as a substitute teacher is considered too much of a risk, but he chose to stand up and tell the insider the story, lest the incident be forgotten gradually, “I am a historian. Many details of this incident are unknown to people outside, I think it is my responsibility to leave a record of it for the future.”

“I am a historian”

Yeung is a fervent historian – he did history for both his undergraduate degree and PhD at HKU. He had taught at a secondary school and university for 11 years. He started working at HKEAA in 2005, till 2020 – when the history-exam controversy took place in May.

Yeung, being 50 years old, has a wife and a young son. He has to find a new job after his resignation. Having been in the education sector for most of his life, he knows he is being shunned there, “Some people asked universities about hiring on my behalf, when they heard my name, ‘Wow, this name, it’s banned everywhere’, even being a substitute teacher is not possible.” Not only in the education sector, he believes all well-known companies which place importance on their image will not welcome him. Where is the place for him? This is the question troubling him.

He was prepared to be attacked again when he accepted the interview. Yet he chose to speak out, rather than letting the incident be forgotten gradually. This is motivated by his trait as a historian – “I am a historian. Many details of the incident are unknown to people outside, I think it is my responsibility to leave a record of it for the future.”

This historian has his stubbornness, unswervingly he said,

"This job requires us to explain the reasons very explicitly, to strive for clarity in handling things. When someone uses something wrong to mess with my clarity, how can I turn a blind eye to it? It’s impossible."

Giving him a taste of his medicine

The HKDSE history subject exam took place on 14 May this year. This day not only affected the fate of more than 5000 candidates, but also that of Yeung.

One of the sub-questions of a data-based question in the paper asked candidates if they agreed “Japan brought more benefit than harm to China between 1900 and 1945”. After the question was revealed, waves of attacks hit HKEAA and Yeung; Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers issued a statement, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs quoted the statement, attacks from the pro-Beijing media, criticisms from Xinhua News’ commentary…

That night, Education Bureau issued a statement, saying “[t]he question is a leading one, which may lead candidates to reach a biased conclusion, seriously hurting the feelings and dignity of the Chinese people who suffered great pain during the Japanese invasion of China”; on the next day, Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung held a press conference, saying the question was not in line with the principle of the curriculum and there was no room for discussion, “there is only dismerit for the answer, there is no merit”. He asked HKEAA to cancel the question and promised to send an officer to HKEAA to understand how exam questions are drafted.

Yeung knew that he was in trouble before that day.

On the day before the exam – 13 May, the online media channel Orange News was the first in reporting the Facebook posts Yeung published 10 years ago, which included contents such as “If there wasn’t Japan’s invasion of China, how would there be new China?”; in the afternoon, Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao called him, asking for his response to the incident.

Was it a coincident that it was related to Sino-Japanese relation? At that point, he knew troubles on that question on the next day were likely.

In the morning of 14 May, photos of himself and his colleague, Lo Ka-yiu, appeared on the front pages of Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao.

“How could it be a coincident?” Yeung questioned. The exam question was leaked before the start of the exam. HKDSE’s history exam had never had any question related to Sino-Japanese relations in the first half of the 20th century, pro-Beijing media published his Facebook posts which he set to be viewed by friends only, and the post was about Sino-Japanese relation; and he recognized from the screen-caps that the person acted as early as in March. What made him shudder was when he tried to enhance his Facebook security, he found 2 hackers logging into his Facebook account. In addition, in July, the first draft of the history exam marking scheme which only 6 examiners knew of was leaked. These traces made him feel that it must involve a “department of power”.

According to understanding, HKEAA, under the pressure of EDB, needs to invite EDB officers to join the Moderation Committee for each subject “in their personal capacity”. An official from EDB’s Curriculum Development Institute joined the Moderation Committee for the history subject. The officer joined EDB in October and was deemed EDB’s representative within the Committee. The EDB representative, was also the person setting the exam question. EDB responded that they did not send anyone to join the history subject Moderation Committee, but admitted that a teacher appointed by EDB joined the Committee in their “personal capacity” before being appointed and had applied to continue to work for the Committee after the appointment.

Tears fall as he masks students'answers

HKEAA announced the cancelling of the exam question on 22 May after meetings on 18 and 21 May. When HKEAA decided to cancel the question, Yeung still had to carry out a task – covering the answers.

Before distributing the scripts to the markers of the exam, HKEAA had to mask the answers to the sub-question. There were more than 5000 scripts, Yeung and his colleagues spent more than a week to complete this task manually. Yeung was responsible for distinguishing the parts of the answers which belonged to the sub-question, the number of scripts handled by Yeung was 270.

When he covered the answers, Yeung saw that the several-page long answers written by candidates with effort were all deleted. This was very heart-breaking to him. He could not hold back tears when he spoke of it, “Do you know how long the answers of many candidates were? The longest answer I masked was 6-page long. I was just talking about this question. You asked me to cover all the answers, it is really heartless…”

"Candidates paid examination fees for you to grade what they wrote fairly. Now, not only are you changing what they wrote, you are masking their answers. This is probably the first ever in the history of public exams, it is really shameful."

Since 14 May, Yeung’s emotion has been greatly affected, he has wept many times in the months after the event, even his colleagues comforted him and asked him not to cry. “I cried every day, it’s ridiculous… It’s obviously political intervention.” He said,

"There is no way you mess with an exam. You can mess with me, but the problem is: this relates to the welfare of many candidates. I started to help with exams in 1994, it was very normal every year, but you slapped the exam in the face once and again this year, what would become of exams?"

Not invited to explain before cancellation of question

Yeung said that on the night of 14 May, he took the initiative to email HKEAA’s secretary general, department chief and others to explain the design and drafting of the question; but only 1 month after the incident, the committee only invited him for a meeting to provide information for the internal investigation. In other words, the committee did not invite him to explain the question or provide information before the "disqualification" of the question.

Yeung said, in the past, if there was an error in the exam question paper, such as the Chinese version does not match with the English one, the subject committee would first discuss for the solution, which is then accepted by the public examination committee. But this time, the subject committee was bypassed and the issue was dealt with directly by HKEAA’s committee, which was unprecedented. He questioned that it was a political decision, “They started off with a high-end solution this time. Why? Because they want to screw with me.”

Did HKEAA protect him enough? Yeung’s reaction was huge, “Is there any protection?” He said he issued a statement personally to explain the question, but was rejected, the committee did not meet with him, HKEAA’s attitude was only to fully cooperate with EDB.

Yeung believed the reason he was selected to be the protagonist of this drama was a story that began in 2017.

In the 2017 history exam, one of the questions quoted the Chinese Communist Party’s newspaper in 1943 and Mao Zedong’s political report in 1945, which showed that democratic reform and ending one-party rule were promoted before CCP came into power. The question asked candidates to comment on whether a significant change was seen in the governance principle after CCP came into power, the other question asked about Hong Kong people’s worries on the future of Hong Kong before the Handover and quoted information, such as the survey showing 70% of the people interviewed hoped the British colonial state of affairs could be maintained. After the exam questions were revealed, heated debates were caused, netizens praised HKEAA as the “most valiant governmental organisation”. (Note: HKEAA is an independent organisation, not a governmental organisation”).

But this “valiant” act probably caused dissatisfaction from the officials.

Yeung later learned that the Liaison Office had “started a file” on him. He guessed that from that time onward, he was watched closely. He feared nothing then, “I said, what was there to fear? I was only doing it according to the syllabus.”

Up till last year, Yeung started to feel being “acted on”: Someone mailed several of his Facebook posts which were set to “friends only” to HKEAA senior management, complaining that his speech was radical, which would affect the history subject exam questions. It was an anonymous complaint, as usual. He saw later that, at the bottom of the screen-cap was the avatar of the person doing the screen-cap - it was the EDB officer.

The official mouthpieces said multiple times this year – Hong Kong’s education needs to be fixed. Yeung is believed to be the parts got rid of in the fix.

“Many people said the reason they acted on me was because of the posts I wrote on Facebook. Come on! I was only playing ‘brushing-edge ball’. The political atmosphere was completely different when I wrote those things, if you judge them with today’s perspective, then I’m definitely screwed.” Yeung likes to comment on current affairs on Facebook, he mostly “play the brushing-edge ball” and use ironies to do so. He has never imagined people using them to attack him,

There was a time in Hong Kong when I believed I had the freedom to speak.

He believed the questions in the recent history exam have caused dissatisfaction from the regime. These all add up to him being the target of the political purge.

Resign to save himself

After the history exam question controversy, Yeung was like being strapped on a “guillotine”. With the blade looked like it would come down any time, what he could do was to free himself from the strings and brought his wounded body out of it.

“It was to save my own life.” Yeung submitted his resignation letter in late July and resigned officially in November. He said when the question was “disqualified” in May, the guillotine had already been set up for him, when EDB’s task force finished their investigation report, he would be “executed”. The multiple incidents of confidential information leakage made him feel even more so that HKEAA was no longer save. Resignation, to him, was only to flee for his life.

The task force set up by EDB investigated the incident in July, Yeung proactively sought HKEAA’s internal advice. He was told that as soon as the report was ready, he would definitely face a dire consequence, it was definitely possible that he would be fired immediately, that he would have to pack his things and leave immediately after receiving the notice and that he would not be able to get the salary in lieu of notice, severance or long service payments, “They said it wasn’t worth it, so they asked me to quit to save my reputation.”

Cultural Revolution Replayed

Having worked at HKEAA for 15 years, he had wanted to work till his retirement, but he had to leave in such a situation. When asked how he felt, having felt immense pressure in the recent months, he couldn’t hold back tears again, “Of course, I couldn’t leave it behind… No matter how bad the situation was, I wanted to continue, to persist, they were still the same team, at least we could do it in the best way I know of. It doesn’t matter without me, but the problem is why is such a way used to kick out a person?” Being sacrificed for no reason for politics? He said,

"It isn’t about my sacrifice, I study history, so I know what is Cultural Revolution, this is obviously Cultural Revolution. History repeats itself. This incident is indicative of the fall of Hong Kong, especially that of education. The incident tells us that the government and officials, i.e. Hong Kong government, Liaison Office and Beijing, are purging those they don’t want without disguise."

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