Of all the assaults on freedom in this city since the promulgation of the national security law (NSL) in June, the most disturbing have been directed at the teachers charged with educating our children. 

It is one thing to wave the NSL at violent anti-government protesters in the streets, but quite another to wield it against teachers in primary and secondary schools who dare to invite free discussion and comment on Hong Kong’s increasingly rancid political scene. 

Photo: Wikipedia and the internet.

Now that a teacher has been deregistered by the Education Bureau – i.e., banned from teaching for life – for designing a lesson on free speech for a Primary Five class at the Alliance Primary School in Kowloon Tong, what teacher will go near this now-taboo topic without fear of losing his or her job? 

And now that Hong Kong’s designated Beijing attack dog, former chief executive Leung Chun-ying, has selected teachers as his favourite target for imprecation and abuse, the climate for unfettered and open-minded education in Hong Kong classrooms has gone from decidedly chilly to downright frigid. 

The primary teacher’s unpardonable offence, it appears, occurred in one particular lesson of a study module devoted to freedom of speech. During this lesson, students, aged 10 to 11, watched an RTHK documentary that included remarks by the founder of the banned Hong Kong National Party, Andy Chan Ho-tin, and then, in a follow-up exercise, completed a worksheet on which they were asked questions such as “What is freedom of speech?” and “Why is the idea of Hong Kong independence being raised?”

The class then went on – horrors! – to discuss the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which Beijing labels a rogue province, and demands for independence for Tibet and Xinjiang.

Admittedly, raising such issues and questions in a Hong Kong classroom today would be seen as a foolhardy invitation to trouble for any teacher. The NSL has made such topics and queries no-go zones for educators. 

Alliance Primary School in Kowloon Tong. Photo: Chong Fat, via Wikimedia Commons.

But the lesson for which the deregistered teacher has been punished occurred in March 2019, long before anyone in this city could even imagine the dystopian legislation that was imposed on Hong Kong 15 months later – legislation, it should be noted, which is not retroactive in effect. Moreover, the banned teacher did not actually teach – although he did design – the offending lesson.

Clearly, then, while the NSL is not legally retroactive, it seems to have given a certain retrospective kick in the backside to kowtowing officials in the Education Bureau who found the teacher guilty of “professional misconduct” warranting lifetime excommunication from his chosen profession. 

The teacher has lodged an appeal, but his prospects of success look bleak. None of the six appeals heard over the last five years have succeeded. 

Does anyone doubt that this ban would never have taken place prior to the NSL or that it is intended as an unambiguous, in-your-face warning to all teachers to mind what they say and do in the classroom? 

And thanks to our former chief executive, now vice-chairman of China’s top advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, teachers are also walking on eggshells outside the classroom. Leung and many of his nearly 200,000 Facebook followers have made it their mission to name and shame teachers charged with offences committed during last year’s anti-extradition protests. 

Last month, Leung launched a blistering Facebook attack on education chief Kevin Yeung Yun-hung for failing publicly to identify these teachers and their schools, quoting a Chinese proverb: “It’s a shame for an official to avoid responsibilities.”

Kevin Yeung in a press conference on October 6, 2020. File Photo: RTHK screenshot.

It is no coincidence, of course, that this is the same proverb quoted by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to Hong Kong in 2017.

As it turns out, however, in this case, Yeung acted responsibly – not to mention, unlike Leung, with a welcome measure of forbearance. The bureau reprimanded 21 teachers who committed protest-related offences and issued letters of warning to 12 others. An additional 19 teachers have received advisory letters and 18 others verbal reminders. Any and all of these educators could have their teaching registration revoked if they are found to commit misconduct again. 

But that’s not enough for the vindictive Leung, who must still be smarting from the plethora of invective he inspired during his five combative years as chief executive. A group he founded, called 803 Funds Limited, is dedicated to the public naming and shaming of teachers who took part in anti-government protests, and last week – drum roll, please – Leung posted on his Facebook page the names, ages, school names and alleged crimes of 18 teachers whom he claims committed protest-related offences.

He also accused education officials, the named schools and the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union of being derelict in their duty to identify these teachers to the parents of the children they teach. 

All this comes after 803 Funds applied for a judicial review last month to force the Education Bureau publicly to identify teachers charged with protested-related crimes as well as the schools where they work. 

In a city that desperately needs to heal and reconcile, this is exactly what we don’t need. 

HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us. Press freedom is guaranteed under the Basic Law, security law, Bill of Rights and Chinese constitution. Opinion pieces aim to point out errors or defects in the government, law or policies, or aim to suggest ideas or alterations via legal means without an intention of hatred, discontent or hostility against the authorities or other communities.

Kent Ewing

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.