Hong Kong university requires students to take 'national security education' class

The course content has yet to be made public, amid concerns over academic freedom under a crackdown on dissent.
By Hoi Man Wu and Cheryl Tung for RFA Cantonese and Chen Zifei for RFA Mandarin
2022.07.26
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A man walks down a flight of stairs at the University of Hong Kong in China's Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, June 3, 2022.
Associated Press

Students at the University of Hong Kong will be required to take a course including "national security" content from September, according to an email recently sent out to undergraduates.

The compulsory course bears no credits but will be needed to graduate from all undergraduate degrees, the email said.

"The ... non-credit bearing course required ... is UG5E1001 Introduction to the Constitution, the Basic Law and the National Security Law," a July 25 email from the University of Hong Kong Registrar told undergraduates.

"This is an online course which will adopt a self-directed learning approach," it said. "There is NO NEED TO ENROL in this course during the upcoming course selection."

Details of the course won't be published until Sept. 1, the email said.

Eric Lai, an expert in Hong Kong law at Georgetown University, said the university is required to offer the course under government regulations spanning 2022-2025.

"There is no explanation [in the email] of what the content will be, who designed it, whether the content was written by Hong Kong's national security [apparatus]," Lai told RFA. "All of this is completely unknown."

Lai said that while the content is in line with the government's insistence on "national security education" starting in kindergarten, a bigger concern is whether students and faculty could get reported to the city's national security hotline by informants if they say something critical of the authorities in class.

"I am still concerned that students ... could use the national security hotline to report what teachers or students are saying in class," he said. "This is the bigger issue."

All primary and secondary schools, special schools and kindergartens in Hong Kong have been required to hold a flag-raising ceremony, with the nationalistic ritual expected once a week in primary and secondary schools since Jan. 1, 2022.

The move is aimed at "promoting national education ... and affection for the Chinese people," according to the government.

All primary and secondary schools must 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, in a position of prominence alongside the bauhinia flag of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

‘A political mission’

Meanwhile, a nationalistic program of Moral, Civic and National Education is replacing Liberal Studies in Hong Kong's primary and secondary schools, which are also required to promote the national security law to staff and students.

The Liberal Studies critical thinking program, rolled out in Hong Kong schools in 2009, was blamed by Chinese officials and media for several mass protests in recent years, from the 2011 campaign against patriotic education by secondary school students, to the 2014 youth-led Umbrella movement, to the 2019 protests that began as a campaign against extradition to mainland China and broadened to include demands for fully democratic elections.

"It's pretty clear that the government will use national security as a pretext to roll out patriotic education, or ideological education, as rapidly as possible over the next couple of years," Lai said.

"[This program] denies the separation of powers in Hong Kong and emphasizes China's total control over Hong Kong, as well as teaching that national security takes precedence over human rights and freedoms," he said.

Secretary for education Christine Choi said Hong Kong schoolchildren will receive new teaching materials distributed in partnership with the national security police, and will also be required to visit mainland China on educational trips.

"The civic exchange program isn't an elective program; it's a very valuable program paid for by the government," Choi said. "Students shouldn't drop out other than in special circumstances such as ... serious illness."

"They can't just write a letter saying they don't want to take part; that's not allowed," she said.

Former Liberal Studies teacher Raymond Yeung said the exchanges had previously been a positive experience for Hong Kong students, but making them compulsory would likely change that.

"I've taken two trips to mainland China, and the students saw it as a summer vacation activity, as something they weren't forced to take part in," Yeung told RFA.

"If students are forced to participate in the exchange from the outset, it will definitely have an impact on the educational benefits," he said.

Yeung described the move as a step backwards.

"The government is on a political mission and is ... using [coercive] methods it has used on adults," he said. "This is really not ideal from an educational point of view."

"These students will be smart enough to give them the answers they want ... but it will turn them into the little pinks that people in Hong Kong so often laugh at," Yeung said, in a reference to the ideologically brainwashed supporters of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Former student leader Andrew To said the culture of Hong Kong's universities has changed since the CCP imposed the national security law on Hong Kong from July 1, 2020, ushering in an ongoing crackdown on political opposition and public dissent.

"In the past, if a university wanted to run such a highly politically sensitive course, it had to consult the student union," To said. "If they tried to skip the consultation, the student union would definitely counterattack and hold campus gatherings and forums to put pressure on the school."

"Now, universities can implement such things with a single directive," he said. "Without the student unions, there is no voice and no force that can oppose them ... which is a huge step backwards."

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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