OPINION-The Politics of Education Reform in Hong Kong

The recent deregistration of a primary school teacher for using inappropriate teaching materials and content has shown that education reform in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) has not only begun but also been closely connected with the issue of patriotism and national security.

According to the Education Bureau of the HKSAR government, a teacher who taught life education subject was deregistered because of “serious professional misconduct” as he distributed teaching worksheet and materials that disseminated “pro-independence” messages. 

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said that deregistration was a “very serious penalty.” She said on October 6: “If there are a very tiny fraction of teachers who are using their teaching responsibilities to convey wrong messages, to promote misunderstanding about the nation, to smear the country and the HKSAR government without basis, then that becomes a very serious matter.” On October 6, the Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung warned that teachers pushing for any “separatist” stance could face criminal investigation because discussions on independence are off limits in schools.

Some supporters of the teacher argued that the complaint against the teacher was anonymous, that the class in which the teacher taught was about “freedom of speech,” and that the education authorities only provided two chances for the teacher to defend and explain his teaching without a formal interview. However, the pro-Beijing media reported that if a complaint was provided with sufficient evidence, then the Education Bureau has the responsibility to investigate. Moreover, the education authorities added that “freedom of speech” had its legal limits and is under the confines of national security.

Finally, if a teacher is dissatisfied with the government’s decision of deregistration, he or she may appeal under the existing mechanism, which provides for the complainant to meet the members of an appeal committee. According to the Education Ordinance, a teacher may provide a written appeal with justifications after which a five-member committee may hold a hearing openly or in closed door. If the appeal committee maintains a decision to deregister a teacher, the teacher concerned may consider appealing further to the Executive Council.

Some parents supportive of the teacher who was deregistered said that he patiently taught students, and that the incident could have been handled by the school alone without leading to a trend that other teachers may exercise self-censorship. 

The origin of the complaint could be traced back to March 2019, when the teacher concerned asked students to complete a worksheet with politically controversial content. Then in September 2019, reporters from a pro-Beijing media received a complaint and they went to the school for investigation. In April, the school came up with an investigative report saying that the teacher focused on “freedom of speech” in his teaching materials “without disseminating pro-independence message.”

In June, six teachers, including a principal and a vice-principal, in the school under the controversy received notifications from the education authorities, which said that they were suspected of having “professional misconduct” and that they were required to give written explanations. In May, the Education Bureau decided to deregister the teacher concerned and to reprimand and warn the other five teachers. In September, the teacher was deregistered.

The primary school involved in the incident has said that it maintains “political neutrality,” but a pro-Beijing media argued on October 10 that “political neutrality” should not be an “excuse” to protect those “yellow teachers” who might advocate “absurd” ideas that could “poison” the minds of the young primary school children.

Some pro-government elites have pushed the HKSAR government to publicize the names of all those teachers who had “integrity problems.” From June 2019 to August 2020, the Education Bureau received 247 complaints about teachers’ professional conduct in social activities. The government completed 204 cases of investigation. Among the 204 cases, 73 complaints could not be established. For those complaints that were valid, one teacher was deregistered, 21 teachers were reprimanded, and 12 other teachers received written warnings.

The entire saga shows the politics of education reform in the HKSAR. As early as the summer of 2012, when some young Hong Kong students and their parents succeeded in opposing and delaying the HKSAR government’s national education policy, the authorities of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) became deeply concerned about the education in Hong Kong. The eruption of the Occupy Central Movement from September to December 2014 affirmed the fears of PRC authorities, who believed that the Hong Kong education curriculum had some problems. In fact, the liberal studies subject was seen by some pro-government legislators and pro-Beijing elites as teaching politics to young students “prematurely” and stimulating their participation in protests. 

Objectively speaking, student participation in protests might have been triggered by factors other than the liberal studies subject, such as their generational transformation of attitudes toward politics from apathy to activeness, their exposure to the social media that have been commonly critical of the local government and authorities, and problematic and unpopular government policies that directly stimulated their protest participation and political opposition.

The controversial oath-taking behaviour of young legislators-elect, Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching, in October 2016 led to the decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress to interpret the Basic Law’s Article 104 on the need for legislators-elect to take their oath “solemnly,” “faithfully” and “trustfully.” To the PRC authorities, some young Hong Kong people disrespected their motherland, mainland China, and this kind of behaviour could be attributable to the “problematic” education in Hong Kong. One such “problematic” curriculum was the liberal studies subject. Critics of the subject have argued that it should be axed.

A task force set up by the HKSAR government in November 2017 that reviewed the liberal studies subject has recently recommended in late September 2020 that the subject can be maintained with modifications in the curriculum. Instead of scrapping the entire subject, the task force proposed that the Liberal Studies textbooks should be reformed and vetted more rigorously.  It recommended the Education Bureau to scrutinize Liberal Studies textbooks currently in use and to examine those on the market and issue official certifications of the qualified Liberal Studies materials.

Liberal Studies was introduced in 2009 as a mandatory subject for senior secondary school students, focusing on six modules including Hong Kong and mainland China. However, the materials did not need to be examined by the Education Bureau. Nor did the materials require certification as the officially recommended textbook list. As such, Liberal Studies teachers could prepare their own materials. This discretion meant that many teachers could teach relatively liberally. After the June-December 2019 protests against the extradition bill and the government, reforms of the Liberal Studies subject have been regarded as a must. 

Recently, a debate over whether Hong Kong has “separation of powers” also stemmed from the content of Liberal Studies reference materials. Some references said that Hong Kong did have “separation of powers.” But the HKSAR government has clarified that “separation of powers” does not exist in Hong Kong, whose sovereign state is the PRC and whose political system is “executive-led.” Pro-democracy legislators, lawyers and intellectuals have argued that “separation of powers” does exist in Hong Kong. 

The whole debate showed a bitter power struggle between the government and the political opposition on the one hand, and PRC authorities and the local opposition on the other hand. On September 7, a spokesman of the Hong Kong Macau Affairs Office said that the HKSAR had “no separation of powers.” Pro-Beijing legislators and elites pointed to the fact that Hong Kong was and is “executive-led,” implying that the judiciary plays a role of only checking the powers of the administration rather than “usurping” the power of “executive-led” polity. The implication remains significant: some court judges have been criticized by the pro-Beijing elites as politically “yellow” and sympathetic with some radical protestors in 2019. While the origin of the debate over the “separation of powers” stemmed from problematic content of Liberal Studies materials, the focus of the debate quickly shifted to target at judicial reforms, which to the pro-Beijing elites are a must because of the need to “purge” those politically “yellow” elements, especially the politically liberal court judges whose verdicts and relatively “lenient” sentences on the violent protestors became a target of severe criticisms.

In May, two examination authority employees resigned amid a huge controversy over the content of a public examination question, which asked whether the Japanese invasion of China “did more good than harm” from 1900 to 1945. The question sparked a huge debate in which critics said that the question was politically unpatriotic and academically inappropriate. Supporters of the question argued that the answer was open-ended, meaning that students could completely disagree with the question. The Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA) eventually cancelled the question. In August, a history subject manager resigned from the HKEAA after he had been reported by the pro-Beijing media for making “inappropriate comments” on his Facebook. 

After the promulgation of the national security law in the HKSAR on June 30, the government is going to prepare and publish the teaching materials and guidelines on national security for primary and secondary schools in early 2021.

While it is natural and necessary for all schools and teachers at primary and secondary levels to be familiar with the content of the national security education, the series of controversies over education reforms in Hong Kong, ranging from curriculum to the content of textbooks and references, and from the conduct of teachers to their teaching content, and from examination question to the political views of examination personnel, have illustrated an inevitable process of heightened politicization. The challenge is for all the schools and teachers to learn, reflect, adapt, alter, and survive amid the politics of education reform in the HKSAR.