Hong Kong Teacher Fired Over Free Speech Lesson

In late September 2020 a Hong Kong primary school teacher was fired and deregistered for life over his role spreading “pro-independence” information through lessons taught to students in March 2019—the first time a teacher’s credentials have been revoked over lesson content in the city. This The lessons called for students to watch a documentary on the banned Hong Kong National Party, and then asked students to fill out a worksheet with questions that touched on Taiwanese independence and in Hong Kong. The lesson, first reported on by pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao in September of last year, sparked an internal review by the primary school and a surprise investigation by the Education Bureau, which eventually implicated and reprimanded six teachers.

At the South China Morning Post, Chan Ho-him provides a detailed overview of the school investigations and the intended objectives of the controversial lessons:

The aim of the two classes on the topic – spanning an hour each – was to let pupils know about heated debates in society, following the government’s ban on the Hong Kong National Party in 2018, according to the source.

The source added that the school had also submitted results of an internal probe in April this year, at the request of the Education Bureau. That investigation found that no staff were promoting the idea of independence. The school employees were also asked to further explain the incident when they were notified in June that they were suspected of misconduct.

Apart from freedom of speech and independence, the source said other topics related to current affairs discussed in the life education classes included Islamic State in the Middle East, under the theme of resolving hatred. [Source]

At Bloomberg News, Felix Tam and Natalie Lung report concerns from the local teacher’s union and international advocacy groups, and note that Hong Kong Chief Executive defended punishing educators for promoting “anti-China views” while also acknowledging the severity of the deregistration:

“If there is a very tiny fraction of teachers who are using their teaching responsibilities to convey wrong messages to promote misunderstanding about the nation, to smear the country and the HKSAR government without basis, then that becomes a very serious matter,” Lam said, referring to Hong Kong’s status as a special administrative region of China.

[…] “The removal of his teaching registration for ‘spreading pro-independence messages’ illustrates how freedom of expression is increasingly being eroded in Hong Kong,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, China head for Amnesty International. “The Hong Kong authorities must not use national security as a pretext to unnecessarily censor educational activities, and they should not reprimand teachers for encouraging students to think about legitimate questions related to Hong Kong affairs.”

While education officials argued the punishment was “proportionate,” Lam highlighted its unprecedented severity, saying it was the first time a teacher had been stripped of the essential credential without allegations of sexual improprieties or other crimes. Five other staff members, including the headmaster and other colleagues who used the same materials, were issued warnings. [Source]

The unprecedented deregistration has been criticized by Hong Kong educators. Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung hinted that in future cases the Education Bureau may refer teachers to the Security Bureau for criminal charges under the new Hong Kong National Security Law. The Guardian notes that of 247 complaints received for teacher involvement in the protest movement since July 2019, the Education Bureau investigated 204 leading to 33 reprimands.

At the South China Morning Post, Chris Lau reports that the opaque nature of the Education Bureau investigations has united pro-democracy and pro-establishment activists in a call for greater transparency:

While opinions were split on the teacher’s deregistration for life, the bureau faced a chorus of criticism for its approach on Wednesday, a day after high-ranking education officials met the press to explain their decision.

Both former chief executive Leung Chun-ying and opposition lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen, of the education sector, argued for a formal hearing mechanism for teachers facing investigation, saying it would improve openness and give them a fairer chance to respond in person.

Tang Fei, vice-chairman of the pro-establishment Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers, urged the authorities to make public their protocols and details involved in deregistering the unnamed teacher, for the benefit of others in the future. [Source]

Leung Chun-ying advocates for the public release of the names of teachers involved in anti-government protests, whom many pro-establishment politicians hold responsible for high levels of protest participation rates among Hong Kong youth. The city’s largest teachers’ union has argued against the publication of teachers’ names in order to safeguard privacy. The South China Morning Post shares opposition lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen’s view that “revealing the names of teachers caught up in the protests would be unfair given the Education Bureau’s ‘questionable’ investigations into those accused of misconduct.”

Teachers and human rights researchers claim that the June passage of the National Security Law has come with significant risks to academic freedom in Hong Kong. In recent months, Hong Kong teachers have seen contracts go un-renewed for a myriad of alleged offenses, including publishing protest cartoons. A June 2020 survey of teachers, covered by the Wall Street Journal, revealed that “92.4% said they felt pressure from the government, 80.3% of them said they have avoided discussing sensitive issues in the classroom, and 91.8% said they had a negative outlook for the city’s education system.”

For the Financial Times, Nicolle Liu and Joe Leahy report on the ongoing battle for ideological control in Hong Kong schools, much of which has focused on “liberal studies”:

Pro-Beijing politicians have targeted “liberal studies” in particular. The subject aims to better prepare students in late high school for the modern workforce by teaching them to think for themselves, especially about current affairs.

“Targeting liberal studies is scapegoating,” said Victoria Hui, an associate professor for politics at the University of Notre Dame in the US. She said the authorities were looking for an excuse to explain why young people had turned against the government.

Hong Kong’s government made liberal studies compulsory in 2009 with the slogan: “It benefits you for life.” But pro-Beijing figures quickly grew concerned that the subject, with modules such as Hong Kong Today and Modern China, covered areas the Communist party considered taboo. [Source]

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