Hong Kong school suspends 14 students for 'disrespect' during Chinese flag ceremony

The students failed to show up to the mandatory event, with some reportedly still eating breakfast.
By Chen Zifei for RFA Mandarin and Cantonese
2022.10.12
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Hong Kong school suspends 14 students for 'disrespect' during Chinese flag ceremony St. Francis Xavier's Secondary School in Tsuen Wan district, Hong Kong, holds a flag-raising ceremony before National Day on Sept. 30, 2022.
St. Francis Xavier's Secondary School

Educators in Hong Kong have called for clarification of rules around flag-raising ceremonies after 14 secondary school students were suspended for failing to show up to one at a school in Tsuen Wan district.

St Francis Xavier's School said it had suspended the students for three days for "committing disrespectful acts" in not showing up for the nationalistic ritual, which has been mandated in government-funded schools in Hong Kong since Jan. 1, 2022.

The ceremonies are aimed at promoting national education and "affection for the Chinese people," according to officials, and come amid a citywide crackdown on any form of public criticism of the government.

All primary and secondary schools must now also display the national flag on every school day, as well as on Jan. 1, the July 1 handover anniversary and on China's Oct. 1 National Day.

Local media reported that some of the students were still eating breakfast in a covered playground when the national anthem began to play.

The government passed a law in June 2020 making it illegal for anyone to disrespect the Chinese national anthem, and legislated in October 2021 to ban disrespect to the national flag or emblems of the People's Republic of China.

However, the Hong Kong education bureau's handbook for schools states that suspension should only be used as a punishment for students who repeatedly break the rules despite warnings.

"Suspension is not an appropriate way to deal with students who break the rules," a copy of the handbook published on the bureau's official website states.

It says schools should only suspend students if they fail to improve their behavior after "repeated admonitions and notification of the student's parents or guardians."

'Drastic' move

Mervyn Cheung, the chairman of the Hong Kong Education Policy Concern Organization, told government broadcaster RTHK that the punishment imposed by St Francis Xavier's School was "drastic," and said suspending pupils should be a last resort.

"I think the EDB (Education Bureau) should consider revising the circular that it issued last year and be more specific with the penalties for non-compliance," he told the station.

He said that the severity of any punishment could be based on factors such as whether the pupils were being negligent or whether their actions were deliberate.

The Education Bureau said on Monday that there are clear rules governing etiquette during the national anthem and flag-raising ceremony, and that it had requested a detailed report from the school, RTHK said.

Some of the students gave interviews to local media criticizing the suspension, especially in the wake of recent school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A parent of a secondary school student who gave only the surname Chiu said the punishment was too harsh.

"A lot of people are demonstrating their loyalty these days, letting those in power know that they are abiding strictly by the law, and will discipline their students," Chiu told RFA.

"There is a real issue with this in Hong Kong," she said. "It's not healthy when some people distort the law and create a situation that could put everyone at risk."

A freelance illustrator and former secondary school teacher who goes by the nickname Vawongsir said suspension is generally reserved for serious mistakes.

'White terror'

He said students who risk violating the draconian national security law, which was imposed on Hong Kong by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from July 1, 2020, should be taught the right way to behave, rather than being instantly punished.

"There has been less and less freedom in schools since the national security law took effect," vawongsir said. "A lot of schools are already censoring themselves, punishing their students even if the government doesn't pursue them for it."

"It's a kind of white terror, and it's very unhealthy, and yet it's becoming the norm," he said. "I think a lot of schools are now going to copy [St Francis Xavier's], which leads to an even greater sense of fear in schools."

Social media comments in Hong Kong hit out at the punishment, saying the Hong Kong school was holding its pupils to higher standards than that achieved by most people in mainland China during the Oct. 1 National Day celebrations.

But on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, comments were different, largely supporting a heavy hand to exert greater control on Hong Kong in the wake of the 2019 protests.

Current affairs commentator Sang Pu said the incident was all about demonstrating loyalty and political correctness, and noted that some Hong Kong students had come out in support of the school's action.

"Some students actually supported this, saying the three-day suspension was absolutely the right thing to do, and what's wrong with being patriotic," Sang said. "The school's handling of this is similar to inciting students to engage in political struggle with each other [similar to the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 in mainland China]."

"It's a hateful way to behave, and it shows how sad things have gotten in Hong Kong today," he said.

He said the students couldn't have been accused of failing to stand for the flag, because they weren't even present at the ceremony.

According to recent laws governing China's national emblems and anthem, the national flag must be displayed in a position of prominence where it appears alongside the bauhinia flag of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

"The national flag, when raised and carried in a procession with the regional flag, shall be in front of the regional flag," the guidelines state, while organizers must take care to retrieve flags used in ceremonies, and return any damaged flags or emblems to the government.

"They must not be displayed upside down, and must not be displayed or used in any way that undermines their dignity," the guidelines state.

Recent legislation has criminalized any burning, soiling or trampling of the Chinese flag in Hong Kong, as well as the posting or publication of images of such actions.

The directive comes amid a city-wide crackdown on public criticism of the Hong Kong government and the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that has seen dozens of pro-democracy politicians and activists arrested for "subversion" after taking part in a democratic primary that was deemed a bid to undermine the government by voting against it in the Legislative Council (LegCo).

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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