Benjamin Franklin may have been the great American sage of the 18th century, but not all of his pearls of wisdom transfer comfortably to 2020 — especially to the disciplinary creed adopted by a Hong Kong middle school that this week chose to discipline a boy for his lack of patriotism.

A polymath philosopher and inventor dubbed “The First American”, Franklin is famous for his sharp quips and perceptive insights on a wide array of subjects. But  “Love well, whip well” — the moth-eaten maxim favoured by the punitive administration at Heung To Middle School— appears to be the extent of his outmoded advice on disciplining wayward children. 

protest slogan flag
Demonstrators hold a flag featuring the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” during a protest on July 1, 2020. Photo: Studio Incendo.

Thankfully, principal Wong Chung-leung only quoted Franklin but did not apply his double-barrelled axiom literally to the Form Four student found guilty of failing to show the required allegiance to his country or proper recognition of his “sense of identity” as a Chinese national.  

The teenager was only figuratively whipped for his offence, receiving a one-week suspension for displaying an image of a flag bearing the words of the formerly popular, now forbidden protest slogan “Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now” as a profile photo during online lessons. The student was also reportedly advised to ponder whether he might be better off at another school.

Think about it: not that long ago secondary students were joining in widespread anti-government protests by forming human chains all over the city, including at Heung To. Pupils there linked up to protest at the sacking of a music teacher for allegedly allowing her students to play the protest anthem, Glory to Hong Kong, for their music assessment. 

National security
Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

But that was then and this now. Since June 30, when Beijing imposed its stringent national security law on Hong Kong, spooked educators have been compelled to rethink and reshape their curricula and to warn teachers to watch what they do and say in their classrooms. 

And it’s not just in avowedly “patriotic” schools like Heung To where this is happening. In addition to outlawing acts of subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorism, the law mandates national security education in all of the city’s schools, and the Education Bureau is expected issue specific guidelines to this effect in the near future. 

In anticipation, elite schools such as Saint Paul’s Convent School and Wah Yan College are poised and ready to give special attention to the new law as the school year opens this month. At Saint Paul’s in Causeway Bay no fewer than four full class sessions of a mandatory ethics course will be devoted to the law, according to a leaked timetable shared with the media. 

How many of these sessions do you think will welcome criticism of a law that has already severely circumscribed freedom of speech and assembly in this city and taken self-censorship in the media to a new high? Any Saint Paul’s student who speaks out against the law could find herself in a disciplinary predicament similar to that of the unfortunate Form Four student at Heung To. 

december 8 civil front
Photo: May James/HKFP.

At Wah Yan, where in 2016 a student localist group openly promoted Hong Kong independence on the school’s Hong Kong campus and the topic was the subject of the annual teacher-student debate, political discourse also promises to be far tamer this year. 

Father Stephen Chow Sau-yan, supervisor of both the Jesuit college’s Hong Kong and Kowloon campuses, says the law will be explained and discussed with students “as an objective fact”, but students will not be allowed to promote ideas such as Hong Kong independence.

It should be noted that Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung and security boss John Lee Ka-chiu, a member of the recently established Committee for Safeguarding National Security, are Wah Yan alumni and that the Hong Kong Catholic diocese last month dispatched a letter to its nearly 200 primary and secondary schools, including Wah Yan, instructing them to teach a “correct understanding” of the new legislation as well as to promote a heightened sense of national identity. 

freewill graffiti hong kong protest china extradition
File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Reverberations from the national security law are also being felt by international schools in the city. The largest group, the English Schools Foundation (ESF) which operates 22 schools across Hong Kong, issued new guidelines in which teachers are warned: “[D]on’t express your own views about local politics.”

At one point, the 15-page document poses and then answers a key question for ESF teachers and administrators: “Is the classroom a ‘safe space’ for debate or discussion? No. In theory, it should be a safe space to discuss anything. But in reality, it is not.” 

Actually, the reality is much worse than that. It’s not just our schools that are unsafe places for free and open discourse; it’s is our legislature, our courts and even the very streets we walk on. 

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Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.