‘Heart-Breaking and Terrorizing’

Beijing Moves to Control Hong Kong Education by Intimidation, Censorship

Hong Kong police chase a 12-year-old girl this month before she was tackled and charged with violating COVID social-distancing rules.

By Patrick McShane

China imposed a sweeping new “national security law” on Hong Kong in June — threatening the personal privacy of nearly 7.6 million citizens and sending shivers throughout the global business community, including over 1,500 U.S. companies.

In these occasional reports, Digital Privacy News examines the ramifications of Beijing’s decision. Today’s report detail’s China’s efforts to revamp Hong Kong’s education system.

Much of the international media’s focus on Hong Kong has been on how China has taken over the political structure in the city.

But the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also is working to take control of the city’s education system as well — from kindergarten and primary-school stage, through to the university level.

Pro-democracy critics say Beijing’s plan is to undo Hong Kong’s long-established liberal progressive curriculum and re-mold it into strict authoritarian Communist doctrine, matching the system on the mainland since 1949.

Unrelenting Pressure

Resistance to the plan has been immediate and strong. It is expected to intensify in the coming months. But the pressure now deriving directly from Beijing, through the Hong Kong Department of Education, is immense and unrelenting.

The old Chinese saying, “The nail that stands up will be hammered down,” appears to be in force.

Local teachers who resist changes are being fired. Others are arrested. Tenured university professors who actively have taken part in pro-democracy demonstrations have had their careers sacked. Even protesting preteens have been picked up in the hundreds by the police.

Despite speaking to nearly a dozen long term professional teachers, local and expatriates, working in local and international secondary schools, none wanted to speak to Digital Privacy News in detail, even with the promise of anonymity.

This is because of the enduring fear of even slightly upsetting their employer or the education department.

“The situation for teachers now is heart-breaking and terrorizing at the same time,” one expat teacher with 14 years’ experience teaching at an international school, said in a brief private meeting.

“Who would have thought, just six months ago, that the government would be doing what’s it’s doing?” the teacher posed. “And treating professional teachers as they have been?”

The scope and scale of the intended educational transformation is breath-taking, covering everything from art and music to social studies and history. Many teachers, including long-term expatriate Americans, are planning to leave.

Hong Kong school children sing “Glory to Hong Kong” this month. The song is banned by the government.

1,700 Student Arrests

The government’s pressure on the city’s school systems began 18 months ago, with the initial focus on young students in protests.

In most modern societies, school children found by police to be involved in political marches would be sent home to their parents with a warning, as was once the case in Hong Kong.

That now is no longer true. Such arrests now are routine.

Between June 2019 and June of this year, nearly 9,000 arrests were made by police; of them, 1,707 were of those under 18 years of age, including 1,602 secondary students and eight primary-school pupils as young as 12.

The most recent example of police arresting children took place earlier this month, when riot police chased and tackled a 12-year-old girl, with three officers pinning her to the ground.

The police claimed to have used “minimum necessary force,” but a video of the take-down that has gone global had proved otherwise. The girl’s mother said her daughter was not involved in any protest but was out to buy art supplies for a school project.

Before releasing the girl, police fined her $258. The charge: violating COVID-19 social-distancing regulations.

The schoolgirl, named Pamila, later told local cable TV: “I was very afraid. They asked me to stand still. But I couldn’t calm myself, so I ran away.”

Her parents have said that they have reached out to a lawyer.

Social Media Monitored

Beginning late last year, the government also launched a plan to intimidate teachers.

By the end of last year, police had arrested 80 teachers for their involvement in protests.

The city’s Secretary for Education, Kevin Yeung, stated that his office also would dismiss principals if they did not handle complaints against protesting teachers.

In January, Yeung’s agency stepped up its threats to teachers, warning that personal remarks on social media — including on personal blogs — were regulated by law, and they could face consequences if their online conduct was deemed inappropriate.

Speaking at a Legislative Council meeting that month, Yeung said: “I must emphasize that regulating teachers’ remarks on social media is not a restriction on their rights to express their political views or comment on social issues … but freedom of speech is not without restrictions.”

“Freedom of speech is not without restrictions.”

Hong Kong Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung.

Yeung has blamed the city’s school system’s previous liberal progressive curriculum for the rebellious actions of many of Hong Kong’s young people.

Yeung’s son and daughter, however, attended international schools in Hong Kong and later universities in Australia. Further, one of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s children attended the University of Cambridge in the U.K. — and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s only child, a daughter, is a Harvard University graduate.

Music Teacher Dismissed

By May, the pressure broadened to music instructors, when veteran music teacher Novem Lee was fired from her secondary school post, reportedly for allowing students to sing “Glory to Hong Kong.”

The song, written during last summer’s protests, is an anthem to the city’s struggle to preserve its democratic freedoms. Lee reportedly gave her students permission to sing the song over the official, required anthem of the People’s Republic.

Lee’s students at the Heung To Middle School protested her dismissal, insisting she had warned them not to sing the song during a music exam; but she did not forbid it.

The music instructor, who had won several educational awards, had more than a dozen years’ of experience.

Since the enactment of Beijiing’s national security law on June 30, the government has deemed some lyrics of “Glory to Hong Kong” — such as “liberate Hong Kong” — as “separatist and subversive” and illegal.

The result is that people trying to sing the song in public are being routinely arrested.

The latest capture took place last month, when 21-year-old street musician Oliver Ma was arrested and detained for a second time, while attempting to preform “Glory to Hong Kong” to a small audience on the city’s busy Queen’s Road.

Art World Affected

The political intimidation from China has seeped into Hong Kong’s art scene, with the citywide banning of the so-called “Lennon Walls,” murals created during the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests and named after ex-Beatle John Lennon.  

Meanwhile, public-school art teachers have been warned about what type of artwork their students can create.

Beginning this month, teachers in the city’s 1,000 public schools also will be required to complete a 30-hour training session to “better understand and demonstrate their professional roles, values and conduct.”

History teachers, in particular, have come under intense pressure from the Hong Kong Education Bureau, which has blasted them for not teaching a history that is “properly patriotic.”

The bureau also has “offered” the top six local publishers of liberal-studies textbooks a new “professional consultancy service,” under which the first batch of books vetted by the government will become available to students this week, when classrooms reopen.

When the city’s leading English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, checked the new textbooks for changes, many alterations and outright deletions were discovered concerning politically sensitive subjects.

Hong Kong police arrest street musician Oliver Ma, 21, for singing banned song “Glory to Hong Kong.”
Credit: Hong Kong Legislative Councilor Cheung Kai Yin

Censored Textbooks, Cameras

Among the deletions were all mentions of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the 2015 kidnapping of Hong Kong booksellers by mainland secret police and photos of Hong Kong’s annual June 4 pro-democracy rally in Victoria Park.

Also disappearing from schoolbooks’ pages is any mention of the concept of “separation of powers,” which existed in the Hong Kong government for many decades — but which Beijing now insists was never the case.

Also toned down were previous textbook criticisms reflecting how China’s consumption of wild animals and poor hygiene in wet markets caused of the 2003 SARS outbreak, which killed nearly 300 people in the city.

By taking control of the Hong Kong narrative, the Chinese Communist Party aims to introduce its own version of history — smacking of George Orwell’s “1984” observation: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

But the most alarming assault on Hong Kong’s democratic ideals and privacy concerns has come from pro-Beijing legislator Tommy Cheung, who, during a July government discussion on education, suggested that closed-circuit TV cameras be installed inside classrooms to check whether teachers are making “non-patriotic” remarks during lessons.

One expat teacher at an international school, told The Sydney Morning Herald last month: “The terror is very real, and so speech is well and truly censored. Our international curriculum will come under attack in the next year.”

Hong Kong English tutor Kin Wing Liu, whose wife also is a teacher, told the paper: “The threat is there. Teachers don’t even get their registration cancelled for hitting students. But they do for going to protests.

“Government officials are suggesting putting webcams in classrooms to monitor teachers and students,” Liu added. “Once the webcam is installed, the data can be transferred to China directly.

“I can’t see a future of academic freedom.”

Resistance Mottled, Muffled

The degree or manner of push-back from these policy changes is difficult to determine. But some possible pockets of defiance exist.

The Catholic Church, however — though deeply established in Hong Kong and managing 190 private schools in the territory — is unlikely to be one of them.

On the mainland, the church faithfully follows CCP’s line. Early this month, Hong Kong Cardinal John Tong Hon made it obvious where his diocese stood, issuing a letter to priests and nuns.

Hong Kong Cardinal John Tong Hon has cautioned clergy to “watch your language” in homilies.

Titled “Fraternal Admonition,” Cardinal Hon warned against “offensive” or “provocative” preaching. The cardinal also cautioned clergy to “watch your language.”

One priest told a Catholic news agency earlier this month that the cardinal’s letter “went down like a bucket of cold vomit” with some Hong Kong Catholics.

“The youth of the church is for democracy. They simply are,” the priest said. “They are looking for leadership — and I doubt you would find any Catholic under 35 here who is not angry, and who does not see the chancery as siding with the people tear-gassing them in the streets.”

Likewise, Hong Kong Anglican Archbishop Paul Kwong, who oversees 90 primary and secondary schools, repeatedly has backed the national security law, telling pro-democracy protesters to be quiet.

There are also as many as 50 private international English-language schools, from kindergarten to the secondary level.

Aimed at affluent expats and wealthy elite locals, they charge annual student fees of $10,000 to $22,580. But such exclusive academic institutions likely are to be wary of risking their lucrative educational licenses by speaking against censorship.

‘Within the Law of the Land’

Hong Kong’s largest English-language international school organization is the English Schools Foundation (ESF). It manages 22 schools and 17,770 students from 75 nations. They are taught by 1,200 teachers, many from the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia.

Speaking to the South China Morning Post this month, ESF Director Belinda Greer said: “ESF works within the law of the land.

“Yes, we are aware obviously that we have two new laws,” she added. “Our focus is very much on the students’ learning.”

Meanwhile, the newspaper quoted this from new ESF teaching guidelines: “Is the classroom a ‘safe space’ for debate and discussion? No. In theory, it should be a safe space to discuss anything. But in reality, it is not.”

The Post spoke to staff from 15 other international schools — including German, Swiss and Canadian schools — asking if they were contemplating curriculum changes because of the new security law.

None, however, was willing to comment.

Finally, there is the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union (PTU).

Boasting 100,000 members, the union long has taken the lead in speaking truth to power.

First, it stood up to police brutality against peaceful student protests — and then the union challenged textbook censorship, specifically accusing the Education Department of using its “professional consultancy service” to edit materials for political purposes.

However, Andrew Shum, the union’s chief executive, said last month that teachers in the future would tend to choose textbooks recommended by the education bureau, to avoid political backlash.

Teachers Afraid to Talk Openly

This steadily increasing pressure — on students, teachers and administrators — is taking its toll.

Concerned parents are filling up letters’ pages in English- and Chinese-language newspapers with fears about student mental-health issues because of what’s happening in Hong Kong schools.

Meanwhile, expatriate teachers have come under immense stress — as they are being seen by Beijing as the natural providers of Western liberal thought to young Hongkongers.

“Our focus is very much on the students’ learning.”

Belinda Greer, English Schools Foundation.
Credit: English Schools Foundation.

They often teach such now-politically-sensitive subjects as social studies or history.

“Everyone, we’re all walking on eggshells, afraid of saying the wrong thing to one of our students,” the expatriate teacher told Digital Privacy News. “And these kids: Hong Kong kids are super-aware of what’s going on.

“They know!

“And for educators with many years of experience, and with a family, if they get fired — with the world economy wrecked — how could they find new employers? Where would they go?

“The Education Department knows this. 

“They’re behaving like such cowards to the gangsters in Beijing,” the teacher said of Hong Kong education officials. “They’re willing to destroy the educational process of an entire generation of young people in Hong Kong.

“They should be ashamed.”

Patrick McShane is a longtime resident of Asia.

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