It is difficult to take seriously the government’s claim that it respects Hongkongers’ fundamental rights and freedoms, when officials find it so difficult to talk honestly, or even accurately, about them.

Consider a story the other day which started like this: “Education Secretary Kevin Yeung has denied infringing upon teachers’ freedom of speech by penalising them for what are regarded as inappropriate comments on social media.”

Kevin Yeung
Kevin Yeung. Photo: RTHK Screenshot.

This paragraph was entirely borne out by the ensuing story, and indicates a truly shocking state of denial… or ignorance.

Now watch closely Kevin: inappropriate comment + penalty = infringement of right to comment. It may be a justified infringement, a lawful infringement, or a trivial infringement, but infringement it is. Denying this fundamental feature of the situation suggests that we have a Secretary for Education who should not be teaching in a kindergarten.

And of course this is true. Reputable educators are strangely reluctant to join what its leaders laughably call the “government team.” Mr Yeung joined the ranks of the political and (supposedly) accountable secretariat after a blameless career in the full-time civil service.

He was announcing a rather sordid exercise in which the Education Bureau is pressuring school principals to take action against teachers with political views which the government disapproves of. That is not, of course, quite how they put it.

Principals are required to investigate complaints about teachers, whether they concern the teachers’ work or not. And then?

“Yeung said that – if a school believed the teacher did nothing wrong – the bureau may consider the attitude and stance of the school and principal to be problematic. ‘If we believe a principal is unfit to discharge their duties, we can dismiss them as principals. Every principal is appointed by the Permanent Secretary for Education. We have the legal power to do so, but we will be very careful to exercise this power,’ he said. ‘If the situation is serious to the extent we believe the principal cannot even be a teacher, we can cancel their teacher qualifications,’ he said.”

education kid child school
Photo: GovHK.

In other words, dear principal, if you are an insufficiently enthusiastic participant in the Inquisition, you will not only lose your job as a school principal, but will be disqualified from teaching of any kind.

It is appalling that the education officials are prepared to make such spectacular sacrifices on the altar of political correctness. Hunting for “inappropriate” verbiage on teachers’ social media feeds is a very minor part of a principal’s job. Good principals are hard to find and removing one is disruptive. Have we no sense of proportion?

In his latest defence of this policy Mr Yeung seemed to be offering a sort of way out. He told the Legislative Council that “schools must provide a reason if they don’t investigate complaints against teachers who are accused of being ‘unprofessional’ over their activities linked to the ongoing anti-government protests.”

So let us see if we can provide some helpful suggestions. Teachers who post things on-line outside office hours are still citizens of Hong Kong and enjoy the right of freedom of speech as provided in the Basic Law and the Bill of Rights Ordinance. Both these instruments provide that restrictions must be “provided by law.” They do not make exceptions for teachers, or any other professional groups.

So the fact that some members of the public think a comment is “inappropriate,” or that the Education Bureau agrees with them, is not relevant. The complainant should be told that if he or she believes the offending comment is illegal it should be referred to the police. If it is believed to be unprofessional it can be referred to the relevant professional council.

If it is in neither of those two categories then it is an exercise of the constitutional right to free speech which principals, like the rest of us, are supposed to protect.

The Education Bureau.
The Education Bureau. File

No doubt this will result in no action being taken about some postings with which many of us would profoundly disagree. This is a bearable outcome. The idea that children who can barely be persuaded by bribes or threats to crack a textbook are voluntarily spending their free time looking at their teachers’ social media posts is outlandish.

It seems most of the complaints are about social media posts, but some are of “inappropriate” teaching materials. Now clearly the principal is perfectly entitled to take an interest in what is going on in his or her classrooms. It is his responsibility to ensure that teachers are fulfilling reasonable expectations of teaching content and methods.

Principals will, one hopes, be more aware of the difficulties facing teachers in the current atmosphere than the complainants are. Students are expected and encouraged to take an interest in current events, to read newspapers and to discuss their contents.

Teachers will, of course, be well aware that this is not an opportunity to impose their views on students or even, indeed, to expound them. One tries to stick to the facts. But sooner or later someone is going to raise a hand and say “Sir, what do you think?”

At this point almost anything the teacher says will offend someone, if accurately reported, and if inaccurately reported – as is quite likely – may offend a lot of people. But we would not, I hope, expect him to lie.

September 6 school strike protest extradition
Photo: Kevin Cheng/United Social Press.

The depressing thing about all this is that the government has clearly succumbed to the bombardment of complaints from the pro-Beijing corner that all our recent travails are a result of the failings of the Hong Kong education system.

In the more lurid versions of this, which you can find in the English-language version of the China Daily, it is traced right back to kindergarten where, a recent op-ed writer complained, children had been told that in China the rivers were polluted and in America, they were not.

Similar nutty stuff proliferates. One charming suggestion was that the local universities could be closed. All existing students should be sent to mainland universities where they would be “straightened out.”

By an interesting coincidence, the Economist reported only last week on a piece of research which set out to test the theory that educated people in America tend to be democrats because of their exposure to four years in liberal-infested universities.

Not so. Students’ political views were carefully tracked over the four years and did not change a bit. Nor is this surprising. Most university courses offer no opportunities for political indoctrination even if the teacher is so unscrupulous as to attempt it.

This lump of scientific evidence will, of course, have no effect on people who wish to believe that the absence of national education is the root of all evils. But this sort of rhetorical overkill threatens to turn a civic dispute into a civil war.

secondary school human chain china extradition

The most distressing recent story was of a young lady who barred her father from her own wedding because he was a policeman. It may be that the gentleman concerned is a tactless martinet who was, as they say, asking for it. Still, it seemed to me that this was the sort of decision which might lead to bitter regret in a year or two’s time.

Some of the published comments from the other side also look like a prolific cause for retrospective embarrassment. It seems that if the level of violence is declining the level of verbal abuse ought to subside a bit too.

The other night I caught a government ad – or Announcement of Public Interest as they call it – for peace and quiet. It started by appropriating the old Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) symbol. This was an error: the CND logo incorporates the semaphore signals for ND, meaning nuclear disarmament, which is hardly relevant here.

The ad went on to say “Say ‘no’ to violence,” a bit rich from people who are so generous with tear gas and other chemicals. When governments say no to violence they are merely seeking to preserve their monopoly of it.

Then we had “Give peace a chance,” in what I fear is not quite the sort of context which John Lennon intended when he penned the phrase. But still, a worthy sentiment.

Mr Yeung needs to get with the programme. If the government is losing on the streets then opening a new front in local classrooms is not the way to peace, only to conflict of a different kind.

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.