Jacques Mallet du Pan was an 18th century journalist who is now remembered mainly for observing as the guillotine reaped a bloody harvest in Paris that “like Saturn, the revolution devours its children.”

This adage has since been applied to other revolutions, as well as the Spanish civil war and even the Brexit campaign in the UK. I did not expect to see it applied in Hong Kong, but we are seeing a lot of unexpected things these days.

Photo: Wikicommons.

Consider the sad fate of Mr Kevin Yeung, the Secretary for Education. Mr Yeung has loyally followed the local descent into despotism with Chinese characteristics. He has condemned what he is supposed to condemn, hounded the people he is supposed to hound and generally repeated the words he is expected to repeat.

That has not kept him safe from bitter criticism from the local ayatollahs of political correctness, who believe he is dragging his feet in organising a sweeping purge of the teaching profession.

It is not enough that he has procured the de-registration of a teacher for producing a lesson plan which may have explored the topic of — horror – independence, overruling the teacher’s colleagues and superiors, who thought the lesson plan educational. The actual de-registration was conducted by the Permanent Secretary for Education, Michelle Li.

Mr Yeung must have realised at some point that this was going to put the final kiss of death on his reputation with a majority of local educators. But we all have to make sacrifices.

He has nevertheless come under fire from Mr C.Y. Leung, who wants to see more heads roll, and Mr Tam Yiu-chung, who objected to Mr Yeung’s suggestion that if children asked about independence they should be told that it was unfeasible and so not worth discussing.

I should perhaps warn readers that this part of the proceedings was conducted in Cantonese; some publications translated the offending word as “impractical”.

Tam Yiu-chung. Photo: inmediahk.net. via CC.2.0.

This was not enough for Mr Tam. Indeed it is difficult to see what would have been enough for Mr Tam. I suppose independence should, in his view, be roundly condemned as irrational, unlawful, unpatriotic, heretical and malicious. Any student who utters the word should be required to wash his mouth out. Only a moment of carelessness as Moses descended the mountain deprived us of the 11th commandment, which of course should have been “Thou shalt not discuss independence in the classroom.”

Still it is a pity that Mr Yeung’s suggestion was not more warmly received. It has the merit of being true, which means that people with a wide range of different views on independence will be able to offer it to students without feeling that they are betraying anything.

Certainly independence is unfeasible. Or if you prefer impractical. We are a colony of a nasty police state whose attitude to its borders is, as the old saying has it, “Anything which is not nailed down is mine; anything I can tear loose is not nailed down.”

We have a puppet government, a garrison, and a local branch of the secret police. Independence is a dream, or if you prefer a nightmare, but it is certainly impractical. This is a conclusion towards which you could nudge your students with a clear conscience

Indeed I imagine that any teacher who was covering this topic in Life Education would probably find that the class reached this conclusion without his assistance. The sin, in the eyes of Messrs Tam and Leung, is not in the danger of coming to an improper conclusion but in discussing the idea at all.

Photo: GovHK.

The result of this approach is that the penalty is far too ferocious for the crime. After all, the lesson plan only covered 50 minutes. Nobody has suggested that a campaign was in progress. If this particular teacher was considered too controversial on current political topics he or she could have been moved to one of the many less sensitive topics covered in primary education.

The de-registration, shockingly, is a life sentence. According to the lady who made the decision, Permanent Secretary for Education Michelle Li, “There is no provision on the validity period of the cancellation, so that means once cancelled it’s cancelled… we consider the cancellation of registration an appropriate and reasonable penalty.”

Appropriate and reasonable? One of the results of being de-registered, apparently, is that you are barred from every school campus in Hong Kong. You cannot be employed as a secretary, a school bus auntie, a janitor or a security guard unless the school has obtained the written permission of the Secretary for Education for you to set foot in its territory.

So here’s the deal: if you are a fraudster, a rapist, a murderer or a paedophile, then education officials are happy to leave it up to the school whether it wishes to employ you or not. You may be a religious nut who believes the world is flat or a rightwing fanatic who believes the world is run by a secret global network of Jews. You may refuse to teach evolution, or insist on teaching that Mao was a superman who didn’t really kill 50 million people. It doesn’t matter. You may be registered, and you may stay registered.

Draw up a lesson plan which goes down badly with Ta Kung Pao, on the other hand, and you face banishment for life from the profession.

Mr Yeung, who is rapidly learning how to say that two plus two equals five when the political parameters require it, stoutly denied that the fate of this teacher would have an intimidating effect on others.

This roughly coincided with the news that the English Schools Foundation had circulated a warning to member schools that the classroom should no longer be regarded as a “safe space” where any topic of interest could be discussed without fear. Indeed they might have said the same about the rest of Hong Kong while they were at it.


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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.