Hong Kong teachers told to inform on students, colleagues in free speech crackdown

Teachers and young people are targeted in a citywide drive to impose 'patriotic education' and support for Beijing.
By Chen Zifei for RFA Mandarin and Lee Yuk Yue for RFA Cantonese

A teacher introduces himself to the students in a classroom at a secondary school during the first day of the new term in Hong Kong, Sept. 1, 2021. Reuters
A teacher introduces himself to the students in a classroom at a secondary school during the first day of the new term in Hong Kong, Sept. 1, 2021. Reuters

Teachers in Hong Kong will soon be required to report "potential violations" of the city's laws to the authorities, in a further clampdown on freedom of speech in the city's schools, as well as passing an exam testing their knowledge of a draconian national security law.

"Starting from the 2023/24 school year, all newly-appointed teachers in [publicly funded] schools are required to pass the Basic Law and National Security Law Test in order to be considered for appointment," the Education Bureau said in a recent circular to schools.

"The requirement applies to all ranks of the teacher grade (including principals)," it said.

The bureau has also updated professional guidelines to teachers to include a duty to report any "potential" law-breaking in schools, or violation of "generally acceptable moral standards," whether by students or staff.

"In the event of receiving information on matters that involve a breach of laws and regulations or deviation from the moral standards generally acceptable to society, or identifying any potential illegalities or irregularities on campus, handle the matters and report to the school management, police and/or the departments concerned as appropriate," the updated professional guidelines state.

Teachers accused of breaking the law can argue their case in court, but could still face being struck off the teaching register by the bureau regardless of the outcome of any criminal prosecution in court, they warn.

"Even the teachers are not convicted for various reasons, if their acts are not accepted from the perspective of teaching profession or students’ wellbeing, the [bureau] will take appropriate actions in respect of their teachers’ registration," the guidelines say.

Teachers also have a duty to "consciously safeguard national security, social order and public interest" and "cultivate in students a sense of belonging towards the country," the guidelines say.

They will be held responsible for anything they post to social media platforms, including content deemed "inauthentic or objectionable," they say, without specifying what that might mean.

Secondary school students march with the Chinese national flag for a flag raising ceremony at the morning assembly during the first day of the new term in Hong Kong, Sept. 1, 2021. Credit: Reuters

Testing political attitudes

A Hong Kong teacher of 10 years' experience who gave only the nickname Echo said this is the first time the profession has been asked to take exams testing their political attitudes.

"I don't think this is reasonable," she said. "How is mastery of the national security law related to the subject matter of somebody teaching math or physical education?"

"I think it's very dubious ... given that it's a compulsory requirement [for employment], it looks a lot like a political review," Echo said, in a reference to the political vetting of public servants at every level in mainland China for adherence to the Communist Party line.

"The government is fond of saying that politics has no place in schools, but now it's the government that is putting politics in schools," she said.

A former school teacher turned illustrator who goes by the nickname Vawongsir said the new guidelines have made it very clear that the authorities only want patriotic, pro-China voices in the education system.

"The code is not very clear about what you can and can't say [nowadays]," he said. "In the past, when I was a teacher in Hong Kong, we would have discussed the latest news in class in Liberal Studies, for example, the white paper [anti-lockdown] protests [in mainland China]."

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, including the 2019 protests that began as a campaign against extradition to mainland China and broadened to include demands for fully democratic elections. 

Former educational assessment official Yeung Ying Yue said teachers could be targeted under vague wording about not "violating social order."

"It looks as if it will be quite common for teachers to function as secret police in future," Yeung said. "It's totally in line with the new order in Hong Kong right now, which privileges the left [Communist Party supporters] over the right [those who support democracy]."

"We will see both teachers and students starting to put self-protection first, and this will inevitably affect mutual trust between teachers and students," he said, adding that the new guidelines remove professional autonomy from teachers and reduce them to obedient servants of the state.

Embracing 'positive thinking'

In September, St Francis Xavier's School said it had suspended 14 students for three days for "committing disrespectful acts" in not showing up for a flag-raising ceremony, which has been mandated in government-funded schools in Hong Kong since Jan. 1, 2022 in a bid to roll out Beijing's "patriotic education" program to young people in the wake of the 2019 protest movement. 

Universities are also rolling out compulsory "national security education" classes and tests to undergraduate students, with students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong forced to take the one-credit class as a requirement for graduation from September 2022. 

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government has rolled out its "youth blueprint" aimed at cultivating a new generation of "patriotic" young people who love China and embrace "positive thinking," a political buzzword in mainland China under Communist Party leader Xi Jinping.

Home and youth affairs secretary Alice Mak said the program will target young people aged 12-39, nearly one third of Hong Kong's population.

Sung Yun Wing, who founded Project Change, a non-profit offering psychosocial counseling and support to young people arrested and being prosecuted for their part in the 2019 protest movement, said young people in Hong Kong are unlikely to respond well to a heavy-handed attempt to sell "patriotism" to them.

He said Mak's "blueprint" had failed to mention his group's suggestion that the government help former protesters by helping them achieve professional qualifications as part of their rehabilitation package.

"The higher their level of educational or professional attainment, the harder it is for these young people to be rehabilitated," Sung told Radio Free Asia.

More than 10,000 people have been arrested and 2,800 prosecuted under a post-2019 citywide crackdown on dissent under the national security law, as well as colonial-era public order and sedition laws, the majority of whom are in this age group, activists and rights groups have reported. 

"For people like accountants, finance professionals, engineers and nurses, there's no point in the government spending all that money on 'career planning' if they can't get professional qualifications," Sung said. "Financial institutions are extremely wary of hiring even people who [were arrested but] not tried or prosecuted, despite the presumption of innocence principle we practice in Hong Kong."

"Even internships are asking for background checks," he said, calling on the authorities to grant an amnesty to some 7,000 "minor cases" that have yet to be prosecuted due to lack of evidence, three years after the 2019 protests ended.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.


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