New bat­tle over aca­demic free­dom in Hong Kong


Pro-democ­racy protesters have re­treated from the streets of Hong Kong but ed­u­ca­tion is in­creas­ingly be­com­ing a po­lit­i­cal bat­tle­ground as stu­dents and teach­ers say aca­demic free­doms are un­der threat.

China’s cen­tral gov­ern­ment and the Hong Kong author­i­ties were unswayed by last year’s prodemoc­racy ral­lies — sparked when Bei­jing in­sisted on vet­ting can­di­dates be­fore a public vote on the city’s next leader.

Ac­tivists have since been pros­e­cuted for their in­volve­ment in the protests, and many teach­ers feel the spotlight is now on them.

Ed­u­ca­tors say there is in­creas­ing self-cen­sor­ship as staff worry about los­ing their jobs.

“Teach­ers are on alert,” says one sec­ondary school teacher who gave her name as Siu siu.

“If an im­por­tant topic is sen­si­tive, they will think about whether or not it is a must,” says Siu, 28, who teaches lib­eral stud­ies, cov­er­ing pol­i­tics, so­cial is­sues and cur­rent af­fairs.

Some po­lit­i­cal

ques­tions on lib­eral stud­ies exam pa­pers have gone from manda­tory to op­tional, Siu says, with teach­ers con­cerned the sub­ject is be­ing wa­tered down.

Siu says teach­ers felt tar­geted dur­ing the democ­racy protests, which be­came known as the Um­brella Move­ment.

The ed­u­ca­tion bureau warned them against par­tic­i­pat­ing and a hot­line was set up by pro-Bei­jing ac­tivists where call­ers could re­port names of those tak­ing part.

It has left a resid­ual para­noia, says Siu.

“We don’t know whether some teach­ers were black­listed,” she says.

“Maybe there could be fu­ture at­tacks.”

Jobs at Risk

It is not the first time there have been con­cerns over aca­demic free­dom in Hong Kong.

Tens of thou­sands marched against “na­tional ed­u­ca­tion” in 2012, a gov­ern­ment pro­posal to bring Bei­jing-cen­tric pa­tri­otic teach­ing into schools.

That plan was dropped, but some feel the author­i­ties are clos­ing in once more.

For­mer school

coun­selor Hui Lai-ming says she was asked to re­sign for openly at­tend­ing last year’s protests.

She was caught by tele­vi­sion cam­eras dur­ing a rally out­side the city’s leg­isla­tive coun­cil build­ing, where some protesters tried to break in.

Hui, in her 40s, says she was not in­volved in the at­tempted break-in and has never faced any charges over her par­tic­i­pa­tion in the protests.

“In Novem­ber (2014), the prin­ci­pal told me the Chi­nese Li­ai­son Of­fice (Bei­jing’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive of­fice in Hong Kong) had asked the school’s board of di­rec­tors to com­mand her to ask me to leave,” Hui told AFP.

Hui says she was told her con­tract would not be re­newed, de­spite a good re­la­tion­ship with the prin­ci­pal.

Her con­tract ran un­til the fol­low­ing Au­gust, but she left vol­un­tar­ily in April.

“In Hong Kong the school sys­tem is al­ways bound to the po­lit­i­cal struc­ture. You can talk about things that are good about the gov­ern­ment, but you can’t talk about the neg­a­tive as­pects,” Hui added.

Prin­ci­pal Fung Shui-lan re­fused to com­ment when con­tacted by AFP.

Stu­dent leader Joshua Wong, 18, who spear­headed both the 2012 na­tional ed­u­ca­tion rally and last year’s protests, told AFP: “The prin­ci­pal or the school may put pres­sure on a lot of the teach­ers and stu­dents who sup­port uni­ver­sal suf­frage.”

Po­lit­i­cal Ap­point­ments

Ten­sions have also been run­ning high at Hong Kong Univer­sity, where coun­cil mem­bers Tues­day re­jected the ap­point­ment of lib­eral law scholar Johannes Chan to a top ad­min­is­tra­tive post.

Some coun­cil mem­bers are ap­pointed by the city’s un­pop­u­lar leader, Le­ung Chun- ying, who ac­tivists claim is ma­nip­u­lat­ing the univer­sity’s au­ton­omy.

Of­fi­cials had de­layed their de­ci­sion on the ap­point­ment, prompt­ing more than 1,000 aca­demics from the city’s univer­si­ties to sign a let­ter to the gov­ern­ment, call­ing it a “wor­ry­ing sign of po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion.”

“It cre­ates a warn­ing to all aca­demics in Hong Kong that should they fight for democ­racy or the rule of law, even if they are not rad­i­cals ... they can be pun­ished,” po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor and univer­sity pro­fes­sor Dixon Sing told AFP.

Hong Kong’s ed­u­ca­tion bureau says aca­demic free­dom is en­shrined in the city’s con­sti­tu­tion and is “an im­por­tant so­cial value trea­sured by Hong Kong.”

In an emailed re­sponse to AFP, it said warn­ings to teach­ers against par­tic­i­pat­ing in protests were a “friendly re­minder” and ar­gued there had never been com­pul­sory ma­te­ri­als for lib­eral stud­ies.

Fight Goes On

Once a Bri­tish colony, Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 and is al­lowed far greater civil lib­er­ties than those en­joyed on the Chi­nese main­land.

But the city re­mains di­vided over its po­lit­i­cal fu­ture, split be­tween those push­ing for democ­racy and those who are loyal to the main­land.

Ed­u­ca­tion is a nat­u­ral arena for those ten­sions to play out, says Sonny Lo, a so­cial sciences pro­fes­sor at the Hong Kong In­sti­tute of Ed­u­ca­tion.

“Ed­u­ca­tional de­vel­op­ments have been highly politi­cized by the ex­ter­nal en­vi­ron­ment, whether in 2012, or by the Um­brella Move­ment in 2014,” says Lo.

“Is­sues like what has hap­pened at HKU ... per­haps char­ac­ter­ize the politi­ciza­tion and po­lar­iza­tion of Hong Kong in the past sev­eral years.”

An­a­lysts agree the bat­tle is set to con­tinue.

“They (the gov­ern­ment) have al­ways tried to change ed­u­ca­tion, but it has been rel­a­tively dif­fi­cult be­cause of the re­sis­tance of ed­u­ca­tion pro­fes­sion­als,” po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Ma Ngok said.

“I think that’s al­ways been there be­cause Hong Kong has never been a democ­racy.”


This photo taken on Sept. 1 shows chil­dren wait­ing in line on the first day of school in Hong Kong.

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