(From Radio Free Asia)
Hong Kong officials have warned school teachers in the former British colony that they could be banned from classrooms if they advocate independence for the city.
While Hong Kong was promised the continuation of existing freedoms of speech, publication and association under the terms of its 1997 handover to Beijing, its officials have recently moved to clamp down on signs of growing pro-independence sentiment in the wake of a failed democracy movement in 2014.
“No pro-independence advocacy or activities should appear in schools,” a spokesperson for the bureau told journalists, echoing recent comments from officials of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
“If teachers advocate Hong Kong independence in schools, they should be willing to shoulder the relevant responsibilities and bear the consequences,” the spokesperson was quoted as saying by a number of local media outlets.
Consequences could include warning or condemnation letters, or even the cancellation or rejection of the teachers’ qualifications, the bureau warned, adding procedures are already established for reviewing the qualifications of teachers who break the law or are found guilty of misconduct.
“We believe that teachers understand the importance of the Basic Law and the legal basis of the government in opposing independence,” the bureau said.
The warning comes after chief executive Leung Chun-ying called on Hong Kong’s seven million residents to “safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Debate vs advocacy
Teachers said the warning was unnecessary, as they have already been trained to know the difference between debating a topic in class, and advocating a political viewpoint.
“I am very worried that this will give rise to a chilling effect, and that this warning is very close to [ideological] direction … and that it will be on a list of banned topics,” a teacher who gave only his surname Chan told RFA.
“Nobody will dare to touch it at all,” he said.
Lawmaker and teachers’ union chief Ip Kin-yuen, who represents the education sector in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo), said it is unclear whether discussing independence for Hong Kong is banned from classrooms in the city.
“If they are talking about advocating, and not merely discussing, independence as a topic, then we don’t believe that is something that professional teachers should be doing anyway,” Ip said.
“But they made this warning sound very serious, particularly in terms of the consequences, that a lot of people are unlikely to try to make that distinction now,” Ip said.
“That’s a real worry, looking at the bigger picture,” he said.
Wong Kwan-yu of the pro-establishment Academy of School Managers, which last week hit out at teachers and education groups for “promoting” the idea of separating Hong Kong from China, said teachers should engage in “debate” so as to give students guidance.
“It’s the job of a teacher to engage in debate … and to remind students not to go astray,” Wong said. “There would be no need to inform the Education Bureau in such cases.”
“Overall, this is a matter for the judgement of the teachers, and students,” he said.
Ban on candidates too
The warning to teachers comes after the forthcoming LegCo election ban on candidates who had previously expressed views considered to be pro-independence in the eyes of election officials but signed a pledge in support of China’s sovereignty.
Top lawyers have said there is no legal basis for excluding such candidates and a judicial review is currently pending.
A recent opinion survey showed that almost 40% of young people in Hong Kong favor independence for the city in 2047, when existing arrangements with China expire.
Nearly two out of five people in the 15-24 age group who took part in the survey said they want the city to go its own way when the “one country, two systems” policy, promised under the terms of the city’s 1997 handover to China, ends.
Across the whole age range, 17.4% said they favor independence post-2047, compared with 39.2% of the 15-24 age group.
Hong Kong was promised a “high degree of autonomy” under the terms of its 1997 handover from Britain to China, but many fear the city’s traditional freedoms may now be a thing of the past, as Beijing seeks to wield ever greater influence over the city’s media, publishing, and political scene.
Calls for independence were rare in the city until the failure of the 2014 pro-democracy movement to overturn a decree from Beijing insisting that all electoral candidates for chief executive in 2017 be vetted by China’s supporters.
Leaders of the 79-day civil disobedience movement rejected the Aug. 31, 2014 decree by the National People’s Congress (NPC) as “fake universal suffrage.”
Three leaders of the 2014 pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong have been found guilty of public order charges linked to a mass sit-in that kicked off the 79-day Occupy Central campaign for fully democratic elections.
Former student leaders Joshua Wong and Alex Chow, and legislative election candidate Nathan Law, were found guilty of taking part in an unlawful assembly in connection with the start of the Occupy Central movement.
All three had pleaded not guilty to the charges, which carry a maximum sentence of three years’ imprisonment.
Wong was sentenced to 80 hours’ community service on Monday, while Law received a community service order of 120 hours.
Chow was handed a three-week suspended jail sentence after the three occupied Civic Square outside government headquarters in September 2014, kick-starting the protests.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA’s Cantonese Service and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.
Copyright Radio Free Asia 2016