Concern groups in Hong Kong have called for a public petition over textbook censorship fears, whilst a UK rights watchdog has said academic freedom is under threat.

The Progressive Teachers’ Alliance, Hong Kong Educators Alliance, Hongkongers Education Support and Education Breakthrough drafted an open letter to Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung, urging him to halt the alleged political censorship and removal of content in Liberal Studies textbooks. The groups also requested that the Education Bureau disclose details of the newly set-up “professional consultancy service,” which reviews the textbooks.

liberal studies censorship
Photo: Education Breakthrough screenshot.

The week, it emerged that some publishers had either removed or altered political content about civil disobedience or descriptions of last year’s city-wide protests over an ill-fated extradition law.

The open letter accused the authorities of obliterating the content in order to hinder students from independent thinking and stifle free thought: “Topics about the separation of powers are removed in several textbooks. Content about the ideology of civil disobedience, as well as the limits the government imposes to freedom of assembly were largely erased. It reflected that the bureau’s claim of ‘enhancing the quality of textbook’ was merely an excuse for political censorship. They are turning the textbooks into the authorities’ mouthpiece.”

Liberal studies book
Liberal Studies textbooks.

Activist Isaac Cheng – spokesperson for the newly-founded group Education Breakthrough – told the press on Friday that the groups will join forces with district councillors to follow up on the matter. They have also gathered various issues spotted in textbooks and built a “textbook brainwashing data archive” that is accessible to the public.

“We hoped students will consider using older versions of textbooks that are more comprehensive and clearer, and boycott the revised version,” Cheng said.

Retired teacher Chan Chi-chung, who attended the joint press conference, added that teachers and school principals are facing pressure and hence refrained from speaking out about the education bureau’s intervention. He cited a teaching staffer who compared the bureau with the “ministry of truth,” in reference to the dystopian George Orwell novel 1984.

Tiananmen Massacre content

Meanwhile in a statement released on Thursday, the UK-based NGO Hong Kong Watch slammed the removal of textbook content related to the Tiananmen Massacre.

Benedict Rogers
Benedict Rogers. Photo: Facebook/Hong Kong Cultural & Political Forum.

Citing a report in the The Times, chairperson Benedict Rogers expressed concerns: “This is a deeply disturbing development which signposts the death of academic freedom in Hong Kong. It is increasingly clear that the Chinese Communist Party plans not only to silence dissent on the streets but also in the classroom by censoring textbooks, purging academics, and sending students for patriotic ‘re-education’.”

“Hong Kong is rapidly coming under the direct control of the Chinese Communist Party, its surveillance state and draconian punishments, which threaten the future for students’ freedom of intellectual inquiry and expression, and the free world must stand against that and with those who cherish Hong Kong’s fundamental freedoms,” the statement read.

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Rachel Wong previously worked as a documentary producer and academic researcher. She has a BA in Comparative Literature and European Studies from the University of Hong Kong. She has contributed to A City Made by People and The Funambulist, and has an interest in cultural journalism and gender issues.