Authorities in Hong Kong are targeting the Liberal Studies program in the city's schools, and look likely to use it to "brainwash" students into unquestioning patriotism and loyalty to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, students and teachers said on Friday.
The Education Breakthrough and Progressive Teachers' Alliance called on the city's education bureau to make public the standards used in a recent round of textbook revisions, which has seen the names of opposition groups and references to the separation of powers expunged from textbooks and teaching materials.
"The space between the political red lines in the field of education is going to get smaller and smaller," Education Breakthrough spokesman Isaac Cheng told reporters. "Whenever a major event occurs and is subject to a crackdown by the [Chinese] government, booksellers will withdraw [books] and revise them to a version that is closer to the government's view."
"Liberal Studies textbooks in future will be nothing but a paean to the [Hong Kong] and Chinese governments," he said.
The group said there are multiple examples of the wording of textbooks being changed to better reflect the official party line from Beijing, citing changes to the description of environmental pollution in mainland China as one example.
Another textbook publisher had edited a description of China's censorship of Western movies to refer to controls on "imported cultural products."
The group said it fears the entire Liberal Studies program, blamed by China for a string of mass, pro-democracy and anti-government protests in Hong Kong in recent years, could now be repurposed as a vehicle for China's brand of "patriotic education," a proposal shelved following mass protests in 2009.
Cheng said he was "deeply concerned" about the future of the subject in Hong Kong's schools, which are already being warned to ensure that they comply with stringent controls on speech and writing in a draconian national security law imposed on the city by Beijing in July.
Cheng said many Liberal Studies teachers were now afraid to speak out for fear of being fired or sanctioned.
Afraid to speak out
The allegations came after the Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union (PTU) hit out at "unprofessional" conduct by the education bureau, saying the revision of textbooks amounted to political censorship.
The bureau said in a statement that the textbook revision had been triggered by last year's protest movement, in response to concerns about "biased teaching materials."
"The publishers voluntarily participated in the professional consultancy service and refined the textbooks, with a view to sieving out the inaccurate parts from the rest," it said.
Edits had been made to avoid "the possibility of exaggeration, inaccuracy or misleading students' understanding" and to help them develop "positive values."
It confirmed that textbooks and teaching materials are also being reviewed to ensure compliance with the national security law.
Fear of political backlash
Andrew Shum, co-founder of Civil Rights Observer and head of the PTU, said teachers tend to choose textbooks recommended by the education bureau, to avoid future political backlash.
"Some schools will follow their usual practices when compiling teaching materials, but I believe that many schools will also use [recommended lists] to avoid unnecessary disputes, such as complaints from parents or external political pressure," Shum told RFA.
"Recommended reading textbooks will be safer, so it's natural that they would do that, and I think it will have the effect of making teachers stick to the recommended reading lists," he said.
The National Security Law for Hong Kong, which came into effect on July 1, 2020, bans secession, subversion, collusion with foreign powers, and terrorism, and has been criticized by foreign governments as being in breach of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's promise to maintain the city's freedom and autonomy.
Rights groups say the vaguely worded offenses, which carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, and cover speech or actions anywhere in the world, will enable the authorities to crack down on any form of peaceful criticism, active dissent, or political opposition.
Chinese history teacher Chan Chih-chung said the purpose of Liberal Studies is to train students to think independently.
"[But] the Education Bureau requires students to be patriotic. This is one of the required values, and we didn't [initially] resist," Chan said. "But as the political atmosphere changed, so has the education bureau's attitude."
"Where once it maintained neutrality and a belief in the professionalism of teachers, we now see more and more interventions," he said. "Some of our colleagues are calling it the Politburo."
He said that the censorship is largely working so far, because publishers who don't submit books for revision fear they could be dropped from required reading lists.
He said teachers are now increasingly fearful that they could be prosecuted just for something they say.
"Will I go to jail for my words? Will my students report me to the school if they're unhappy with my teaching?" he said.
Reported by Gigi Lee for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Tseng Yat-yiu for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.