Last Thursday, the Hong Kong Education Bureau decided to retroactively void an exam question from the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) World History exam. After presenting students with three passages from primary historical artifacts that illustrate the collaboration between Japanese and Chinese academics, merchants, and a Chinese revolutionary leader who helped overthrow the oppressive Qing empire, the question asks students to evaluate whether the influence Japan had over China from 1900-1945 was more positive or negative overall.

While the question was open-ended, the Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung determined that the question must be void because it ideologically led students to argue in favour of Japan. History teachers and cultural critics have pointed out that while the question might not be perfectly set, it was rightly controversial and warranted students’ deliberation. Yeung disagreed with the assessment, and instead argued that the question was moot because the only correct answer was that Japan had done only harm to China.

Kevin Yeung
Kevin Yeung in a press conference on May 15. Photo: via CC 2.0.

Prior to Yeung’s statement, the state-run Xinhua News Agency issued an impassioned commentary on the same exam question, calling it “poisonous” and “damaging to Chinese national sentiments and dignity.” In the same breath, Xinhua condemned the educators who designed the exam for being “cold-blooded,” accusing them of “promulgating incorrect worldviews” and radicalising innocent students to join the ongoing “riots.” Finally, the commentary urged the Hong Kong exam authority to promptly withdraw the question, or it could “never squelch the anger of China’s sons and daughters.”

In addition to this commentary, Beijing further condemned the exam question through the Chinese Foreign Ministry Office in Hong Kong: in a Facebook post, the Office likened the Hong Kong education sector to “a chicken coop without a flap” because it was so out of control ideologically. Earlier this month, Chief Executive Carrie Lam used the same chicken coop metaphor to criticise the Hong Kong’s liberal studies curriculum, a subject meant to cultivate critical thinking skills and social awareness.

Lam suggested that the curriculum has been spewing misinformation that incites students to participate in anti-establishment protests. In order to restore order in Hong Kong, Lam urged school management and other education organisations to act as “gatekeepers” against teaching materials that may radicalise middle-school students.

The question in this year’s DSE History exam that has sparked controversy.

The Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, together with other education and pro-democracy advocacy groups, have vehemently criticised Lam’s remarks and the Hong Kong Education Bureau for its decision to succumb to Beijing’s pressure. They rightly pointed out that the government’s recent actions are meant to suppress intellectual freedom in order to cultivate ideological compliance among Hong Kong students.

As the pro-democracy movement continues despite the pandemic, Beijing and the Hong Kong government have been deploying increasingly more inflammatory discourse and enhanced police violence to squelch street protests. These recent incidents illustrate that the governments are tightening their ideological grip on the education sector. In April, the Hong Kong authorities attempted to censor and sanction Sam Chun-Wai Choi, a lecturer at the Education University of Hong Kong, for criticising police violence during its siege of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU). In his four-minute speech, which was aired in a talk show produced by RTHK, Choi referred to the police violence of university campuses as a “humanitarian crisis,” and likened the PolyU incident to the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre.

The Communications Authority ruled that Choi’s speech was a form of “hate speech” as it incited a backlash against the police force. Soon after, the Police Commissioner sent a formal letter to Choi’s employer, the President of the Education University of Hong Kong, and to the Education Bureau, urging them to sanction Choi in order to “ensure the professional conduct of educators.” While, to date, Choi has not been penalised by the University, the University also has never defended Choi’s intellectual freedom and freedom of speech.

Sam Choi
Sam Choi on RTHK’s show Pentaprism on July 29, 2019. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Beijing’s, and the Hong Kong government’s, attempts to suppress intellectual freedom preceded the current wave of pro-democracy protests. In 2012, the Hong Kong government proposed to pass a bill that would make a specific Moral and National Education (MNE) curriculum mandatory in all schools. After tens of thousands of students, educators, parents, and activists showed up to protest against the proposal, the Education Bureau announced that it would shelf the curriculum indefinitely. The protests and hunger strikes were organised largely by a group of middle-school students, including the now-renowned young activists Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow who went on to form the pro-democracy political group Demosistō.

The MNE protests created a culture of student-led grassroots movements in Hong Kong that helps defend intellectual freedom and freedom of speech in educational contexts and beyond. Since then, and during the current movement, middle-school and university students have taken an active role in organising Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests and advocacy campaigns.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Beijing and the Hong Kong government understand how powerful education can be in promoting anti-authoritarian ideals and fueling pro-democracy social movements. Their repeated attempts to squelch intellectual freedom and control the school curricula highlight how concerned and fearful they are with the liberating potential of education. Rather than succumbing to state pressure to self-censor and sanction ideas that challenge the existing political hierarchy, we as educators must practice and harness the potential of critical pedagogy in creating lasting social change.

civic square
Student-led protests against national education legislation at the Civic Square in 2012. File Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Brazilian thinker-educator Paulo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed that those in power would always deploy the “banking model” of education to maintain the status quo. In this model, students are treated as empty and passive vessels whose sole responsibility is to receive without questions any knowledge the teacher deposits. By stifling students’ agency and critical thinking skills, the banking model of education creates people who are compliant and eager to obey the oppressor. As a result, an oppressive government would try all its might to suppress intellectual freedom.

Indeed, Beijing and the Hong Kong government have repeatedly demonstrated their eagerness to suppress students’ ability to question the status quo. Freire reminds us that for education to fulfil its liberatory potential, it must instil students with “critical consciousness”: namely, the ability to question realities that most people have taken for granted. By developing the ability to observe and interrogate incongruences in their everyday life, students then gain the ability to call out and intervene in injustices.

Demosisto’s Twitter thread on the row over the DSE History paper question. The group cites a quote by former Chinese leader Mao Zedong in his book on diplomacy, who wrote Chinese people should “thank” the Japanese occupation “awakening” people in China.

While the current situation in Hong Kong may be disheartening to pro-democracy activists and educators, we can practice critical pedagogy in and out of the classroom keep the movement sustainable. As Freire wrote, critical pedagogy “as a humanist and liberating praxis, posits as fundamental that the people subjected to domination must fight for their emancipation. To that end, it enables teachers and students to become subjects of the educational process by overcoming authoritarianism.” By recognising students’ creativity and ingenuity and working alongside them to question social injustices, teachers can transform schools into a greenhouse of liberatory thinking and interventions.

Education is a frontier in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement that is currently under siege. Educators in and out of the classroom face immense political pressure to conform to pro-Beijing ideologies. In addition to defending the intellectual freedom of scholars and advocating for teachers who work hard to cultivate creative and critical thinking in their classrooms, we as individuals must shoulder some of the responsibilities. We can begin by always questioning the information we receive from mainstream pro-establishment media and prompting those around us to in our everyday life advocate for our collective political rights and freedom.

Shui-yin Sharon Yam is an Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of Inconvenient Strangers: Transnational Subjects and the Politics of Citizenship.