HKCT Review 2020: Education

HKCT Review 2020: Education
(Citizen News)

The education sector has long been seen by pro-Beijing forces as a major source of dissent in Hong Kong. Hong Kong officials and state media repeatedly said it was necessary to impose national education on local schools. Tensions came to a head in May, when the Examinations and Assessment Authority set a question in a history DSE paper asking whether Japan effected more good than harm to China from 1940 to 1945. Few defended the question, but when the Education Bureau (EDB) seemed to force the Authority to cancel the question, many feared for the Authority’s autonomy, and said the cancellation was unfair to students. An application for judicial review was dismissed by the High Court in July. Hans Yeung, head of the history unit in HKEAA, had to leave the organisation he served for 15 years.

In December, Liberal Studies, a particular bugbear of those opposed to the anti-ELAB protests, was gutted. It is now allocated half the time, will be assessed on a pass/fail basis, and will be taught only using strictly vetted textbooks. Meanwhile, the EDB banned two teachers from teaching, and has punished several others; more punishments are threatened. The government defended the changes, denying that they would undermine critical thinking. A pro-Beijing legislator, Priscilla Leung, however, opposed teaching secondary school critical thinking skills, and therefore supported the changes.

At the University of Hong Kong, Benny Tai, the architect of Occupy Central, was fired by the University Council in July, and 2 Tsinghua University colleagues of the current Vice-Chancellor, Zhang Xiang, were appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellors in October. CUHK university authorities called the police on its own students on graduation day in November, 8 of whom were arrested on suspicion of violating the National Security Law. University Services Centre for China Studies (USC) at CUHK would be restructuring in 2021; its Director Professor Pierre F. Landry tendered his resignation after the University proposed to restructure the Centre.

Internationally, universities including Oxford and Harvard acted to protect students studying China by ensuring that any controversial remarks they made in classroom discussions would not be disclosed anywhere else. In Australia, disciplinary proceedings went against Drew Pavlou, a student activist who organised a protest about Hong Kong; the University of Queensland denied that the proceedings had anything to do with the protest, but also refused to disclose why they had been initiated.

Last but not least, with COVID-19, universities, as well as primary and secondary schools, started to move all teaching and learning activities online, such as Zoom (though Zoom was earlier reported to be linking users' computers to PRC servers if they are using a certain version). We might have some students who have never been to a university campus to attend lessons to be university, primary or secondary school graduates.

De facto national education?

Officials both in Hong Kong and the Mainland, as well as the pro-establishment camp, have called for radical changes to the education system. In August, Kevin Yeung, the Education Secretary called on kindergarten teachers to ‘develop’ the ‘national identity’ of toddlers with ‘interactive activities’. He suggested story-telling and singing of nursery rhymes to build Chinese identity and encourage filial piety (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2736703616547020). The EDB also suggested some activities to promote the PRC constitution on 4 December, such as flag-hoisting and the singing of the National Anthem. It also encouraged students to pay close attention to developments on the Mainland such as the inauguration of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link. The EDB did not mention certain parts of the PRC Constitution. For example, Articles 33 to 37 guarantee equality before the law, respect of human rights, and freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association, procession, demonstration, religious belief, and the person, and Article 39 prohibits unlawful searches of and intrusion into citizens’ residents. Article 40, meanwhile, protects the privacy of correspondence, and Article 41 the right to criticise state organs and suggest improvements. No activities about these provisions were suggested (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2798430843707630).

Around the time of changes to Liberal Studies (see below), Reuters reported that two mainland officials had warned of ‘comprehensive education reform’ by the end of Carrie Lam’s term in 2022. Although they offered few specifics, they mooted greater monitoring of teachers. The Education Bureau did not directly respond to the report when asked for comment, but laid emphasis on the development of national identity and national security education, comparing the situation to other countries (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2816505491900165). State media has also condemned the education system. The People’s Daily worried that Liberal Studies, for example, could lead to brainwashing and acceptance of ‘laam chaau’. ‘Laam chaau’ refers to mutual destruction, and is one strand of thought amongst anti-ELAB protesters, according to which, even if the achievement of protesters’ aims is impossible, some attempt should still be made to damage the local and central authorities (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2818615411689173). Similar worries were expressed by the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO). A spokesperson said that advocacy of Hong Kong independence and violence was taking place in schools, and needed to be eliminated. The HKMAO also insisted on patriotism and adherence to the rule of law in schools. (https://facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2672849026265813). In practice, even in the one case the Education Bureau considered sufficiently egregious to disqualify a teacher from teaching, it transpired that Hong Kong independence had been discussed, but not advocated (see below). In a November blog post, Matthew Cheung, the Chief Secretary for Administration (second only to the Chief Executive) said that national security education was ‘imperative’, without providing specifics. In the new vocabulary of Hong Kong officialdom, he spoke of ‘positive values’, and praised Carrie Lam’s 2020 Policy Address as ‘comprehensive, rich, pragmatic and progressive’. According to Cheung, national security education not only helps to secure the country, but will also ensure prosperity and stability (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2818377641712950).

CY Leung, a former Chief Executive, has demanded that the EDB should go further. This year he has publicly denounced several teachers and revealed their identities. Citing the arrest of over 1,000 minors in anti-ELAB protests, he said that some teachers must be ‘black sheep’ to blame, and referred to similar practices in the UK. (The Prevent scheme to prevent radicalisation in the UK has been criticised by human rights lawyers, and a Whitehall investigation found it did not work, as reported in the Financial Times. A government review is ongoing, although the appointment of a chair has been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.) (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/photos/a.1446445815572813/2780360488847999/). Outgoing education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen compared Leung’s approach to the Cultural Revolution. The Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data has received 17 complaints about Leung, and said it would handle complaints in line with existing procedures. Meanwhile, the largest teachers’ union in Hong Kong—the Professional Teachers Union (PTU)—said that it would consider filing an injunction (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2777366499147398). Although the EDB has refrained from identifying teachers whom it has punished in order to comply with data protection legislation, CY Leung dismissed such concerns and applied for a judicial review of the decision. In response to a letter, the EDB said that it was following up on cases closely, but this did not satisfy Leung (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2765201433697238). Leung also said that parents should be able to access this information and accused the EDB of succumbing to political pressure from teachers’ unions; in his view, good teachers would be tarred unless bad teachers were identified (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2768166940067354).

Meanwhile, a Roman Catholic primary school was revealed in September to have included a patriotic prayer, which read ‘God, thank you for letting me become Chinese. I have to love the Country and the Nation just like Jesus to express my gratitude to you.’ (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2749583805259001).

That same month, after references to the separation of powers under the Basic Law were removed from textbooks, the Secretary for Education denied that there was any censorship of secondary school textbooks in Hong Kong (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2744332209117494).

Earlier, in May, a kindergarten teacher was accused of insulting the police after using promotional material about the Police Dog Unit on its 60th anniversary (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2642574632626586).


In July, Benny Tai was fired from the Faculty of Law by HKU (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2710168759200506). Tai was the architect of Occupy Central with Peace and Love, the 2014 protests demanding universal suffrage as promised in the Basic Law that led to the 2019 anti-ELAB protests. Fu Hualing, the head of the Faculty of Law, said in a circular that he strongly regretted Tai’s dismissal, but expressed hope that the faculty would still be able to maintain academic freedom. Fu is a constitutional and human rights expert, and earlier wrote an article (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2697831477100901/) expressing concern about the National Security Law in that respect (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2785330111684370).

In September, the HKU Lennon Wall was vandalised but rebuilt. Students demanded a full investigation from the university, especially into the possibility that security guards had neglected to prevent vandalism on campus. They held a march to the President’s office (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2764162770467771). September also saw a statement from six journalism departments asking the police not to restrict their definition of journalists for operational purposes to locally government-registered and internationally prominent outlets (https://facebook.com/hkcolumn/photos/a.1446445815572813/2758806841003364).

In November, 8 graduating CUHK students were arrested after a small protest was held. Last year, the university was praised for attempting to negotiate with police on behalf of student protesters. This time, it was condemned for calling the police by its students (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2825134384370609). In a joint statement by university student unions, the university was accused of destroying trust between students and management, and betraying the ideals of its founders, who had fled from the CCP’s persecution (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2824919784392069). Amnesty International condemned the arrests (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2825167747700606). The National Security Department claimed graduating CUHK students advocated Hong Kong independence and caused criminal damage with spray paint; it also said that CUHK had reported the students to them (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2810560219161359) Later that month, four students were arrested for unlawful assembly after setting up a street booth to raise awareness about the case of 12 Hongkongers earlier arrested by the Chinese coast guard and detained in Shenzhen. The 12 were attempting to flee to Taiwan (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2819484091602305).

In December, the President of the Baptist University’s Student Union was arrested on suspicion of obstructing the course of justice, possession of an offensive weapon, and resisting arrest. He had earlier been acquitted in a similar case (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2821326944751353). The Student Union condemned the arrest and called it arbitrary (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2820645111486203). A magistrate later granted him bail, but prohibited him from leaving Hong Kong and required him to report to the police every Thursday (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2825282424355805).

Also, in December, University Services Centre for China Studies (USC) at The Chinese University of Hong Kong would be restructuring in 2021. Founded in 1963, the USC is renowned in academia worldwide and hailed as the “Mecca for China Studies”, and the imminent restructuring in the coming year amidst turbulent times in Hong Kong’s political scene has drawn suspicion of oppression. A source at CUHK told RFA that the former Centre Director Professor Pierre F. Landry tendered his resignation after the University proposed to restructure the Centre (facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2837965313087516).

Widespread opposition amongst students was sparked when Max Shen, later appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor, was found to be a Party Committee member at Tsinghua University. A separate proposal will allow the Pro-Vice-Chancellor to appoint selection panels for college deans. 4,000 students signed a petition against the appointments (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/photos/a.1446445815572813/2789016604649054). But Shen denied that he was a member of the Communist Party, saying that the website administrator at Tsinghua had made a mistake (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2789266977957350).

Liberal Studies

Signs that changes to Liberal Studies were likely appeared in August, when it was reported that several changes had been made to textbooks. After a review by the EDB, material on the separation of powers and civil disobedience was removed. Also absent was content on localism, photos of pro-democracy marches and the 4 June candle-lit vigil. The Vice President of the PTU, Tin Fong-chak, said that the changes were an attempt to impose pro-Beijing views and went too far. Tin also remarked on the removal of references to Hong Kong’s former status as a British colony, and said that it was common knowledge anyway (https://facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2733826036834778). Hong Kong’s status as a colony was a vexed question in the run-up to the handover. The United Nations in 1960 passed a Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which also made reference to self-determination. Hong Kong was classified as a colony to which the declaration applied by a report published in 1963. The view of the Chinese government, however, is that Hong Kong is not a territory entitled to self-determination, since it was always an integral part of China merely (illegitimately) occupied by Britain. Hong Kong was removed from the list after China joined the United Nations.
Portents continued to appear over the next few months. In September, a government task force suggested that current affairs should not be discussed at all within secondary schools, since they were beyond students’ comprehension (https://facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2758731234344258). The analytical components of other subjects, such as history and geography, were also under threat. New EDB guidelines placed much more emphasis on the factual elements of curricula, and cautioned against analysis of current affairs on the basis that conclusions might be subjective (https://facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2769156439968404).
Without consulting the task force concerned, the EDB decided to radically alter the Liberal Studies curriculum in November. Under the plans, the 1 to 5** grading system will be changed to pass/fail, the EDB will provide a list of approved books, and the number of topics will be halved (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2815049268712454).

Ip Kin-yuen, the outgoing education sector lawmaker, said the move was a politically motivated attempt to stop students from developing critical thinking skills and discussing current affairs. Priscilla Leung, however, said doing so was a good idea, and that secondary school students were too young and vulnerable to ‘twisted information[sic]’ (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2816252231925491). Over 90% of Liberal Studies teachers opposed the changes. The EDB instead said that the PTU was needlessly politicising curriculum reform and attempting to create dissension between the EDB and teachers (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2826634727553908).

Civil servants and staff at the Curriculum Development Institute working on Liberal Studies said they were unaware of the changes. This discrepancy led some to suggest that the changes were politically motivated and had not actually originated from professionals in the sector (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2818344878382893). The charge was repeated by the PTU. The Liberal Studies Teachers Association also said that the changes had been imposed without consultation. However, the Federation of Education Workers (HKFEW) said that changing the curriculum would reduce stress levels and allow more time to be spent on other subjects. He also worried that Liberal Studies was potentially misleading and biased, echoing other pro-establishment voices’ criticisms. The FEW is the smaller pro-establishment counterpart of the PTU (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2816490408568340). Kevin Yeung, Secretary for Education, insisted that the changes were exactly as proposed. He denied any need to determine students’ precise level of knowledge in Liberal Studies, saying that the pass/fail system was sufficient (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/photos/a.1446445815572813/2816631398554241/).

Yeung also attempted to reassure the public by noting that the changed curriculum would not exactly be called ‘National Education’ (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2822966644587383). In 2012, student protesters forced the government to abandon moral and national education; the content of the proposals is not dissimilar from the changes to Liberal Studies. Scholarism (one of whose members is Joshua Wong) was thrown into the public limelight after the protests.

Meanwhile, at one school, the Principal ordered pupils to write letters of praise to the Chief Executive. All letters were to be submitted to her for approval, and were required to praise the Policy Address of the Chief Executive. The Principal, when questioned, defended the letters as a way to present multiple views (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2818305505053497). Yeung later denied that changes to Liberal Studies would undermine critical thinking (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2822966644587383).

Disqualification/investigations of teachers

One teacher revealed at the start of the year that the EDB was investigating him for criticising the police. Although his school confirmed that he had not discussed politics with pupils, the EDB demanded explanations for each individual Facebook post he had made (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2553433441540706). In October, a primary school teacher was de-registered by the EDB and will therefore not be able to teach in future after discussing materials advocating Hong Kong independence in class, to the regret of some parents (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2770118469872201) and pupils (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2804813393069375). Amnesty International condemned the move (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2770660046484710).

The People’s Daily declared that the ‘poison of colonial education’ was still present in the education sector, citing the dismissal of a primary school teacher accused of using material about Hong Kong independence (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2773500822867299). The dismissal led to self-censorship amongst other teachers; for some, it was their first time. One teacher particularly feared complaints from parents or a probe from the EDB (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2784194428464605).

Others have also been disciplined: 21 have been reprimanded, and 12 given written warnings; the EDB has also threatened to de-register those who break regulations. It also ‘reminded’ about 40 teachers not to behave in a manner detrimental to the professional image of teachers, and behave socially acceptably (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2769623713255010). International schools have also told teachers to be careful, and reminded teachers that some pupils’ views were likely illegal (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2736691943214854). In December, the Secretary for Education said that the EDB was also considering proposals to introduce new forms of punishment, such as pay cuts and temporary suspensions (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2823700681180646).

Another teacher was de-registered in November after making some mistakes in teaching, such as inaccurately saying that the Opium War was started by the British to rid China of opium (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2803982089819172).

In late February, Ho Pak-yan, a teacher in Confucius Hall Secondary School, published an apology in the newspaper for his suspect of issuing hate speech against the police earlier. The verse can be read vertically by the first Chinese character on each sentence, together to be read as "death to dirty cops and their families, not one less" (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2585776551639728). Ho remained a teacher at the school after investigation though.

Exam controversy

In this year’s DSE history exam, one question asked about the effect of Japan on China in the early twentieth century, sparking much controversy. The EDB demanded the cancellation of the question, and simultaneously denied exerting pressure on the Examinations and Assessment Authority (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2650222985195084). It then announced an investigation into the Authority, prompting worries about its autonomy from some principals (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2652544361629613).

Commentaries in the People’s Daily declared the education sector ‘deeply poisoned’ and called for stricter supervision by the EDB (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2651789445038438). These complaints were echoed throughout Chinese state media (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2650109455206437). Eventually, at a special meeting, the Authority decided to cancel the question and adjust marks accordingly (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2655729401311109).

Several senior officials in the Authority later left. Those opposed to the move were generally worried by potential unfairness or the possibility of undermining the Authority’s autonomy, as opposed to the question in particular. One, Hans Yeung Wing-yu, a senior manager at the Authority, said that it was placed under immense political pressure. He added that to ignore candidates’ work by cancelling the question was disgraceful (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2819809154903132). 2 others, who privately made controversial remarks on social media, also left (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2651037021780347). Hans Yeung left HKEAA in November and received several media interviews to reveal details; it is known that the name of the setter was Kelvin Ip Kai-yiu (previously a history teacher in a leftist school and now a Curriculum Development Officer at EDB). (https://facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2839649649585749)

A secondary school student applied for judicial review (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2652732904944092) on the basis that it was unfair, but the application was dismissed in July (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2690151671202215).

Later that year, Wei Xiangdong, an education economist specialist at Lingnan University, replaced the previous Secretary-General after he decided to retire (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2817475851803129).


The National Security Law has had international implications for teaching about China.  The University of Oxford has anonymised essays to protect students from National Security Law. Students who endanger others by making recordings will commit a disciplinary offence. (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2763400660543982). Princeton, Harvard, Amherst and others and others have followed (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2728787564005292).

Meanwhile, Australian universities have attempted to avoid any backlash from the Mainland after several controversial incidents involving Hong Kong. Drew Pavlou, University of Queensland student activist who organised a pro-democracy rally, was suspended. The university denies that the matter had anything to do with the rally, but also has not specified what Pavlou was accused of. It also ordered Pavlou not to disclose what the proceedings were about, threatening further punishment (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2662455720638477). At the University of Melbourne, students called for the removal of job advertisements from the Hong Kong police after the passage of the National Security Law (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2692323164318399).

At the University of New South Wales, management declared it had a ‘long and valued relationship with Greater China’ after complaints about articles about Hong Kong. 3 academics had written an article that was featured by the university website, attracting criticism from China. The university quickly apologised. (https://www.facebook.com/hkcolumn/posts/2713324125551636).

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