Three Hong Kong university students who will soon qualify as Liberal Studies teachers have vowed to stand by the subject despite complaints from pro-Beijing figures and the recent sacking of an educator accused of spreading pro-independence messages to pupils.

The trio said they expected to come under intense scrutiny in the classroom but felt a sense of duty to educate future generations and would not back down easily.

HKU Liberal Studies teachers
Vivian, Johnny and Phoebe are final year students at the University of Hong Kong, who major in a double degree programme that offers them a professional qualification to teach Liberal Studies in Hong Kong secondary schools. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“Since the government thinks it can silence the education sector, as teachers-to-be we cannot compromise silently. We must continue to teach the truth in class,” said Phoebe, a final-year student at the University of Hong Kong, who spoke with HKFP under a pseudonym for fear of reprisals.

Phoebe and her classmates Vivian and Johnny – who also declined to use their real names – are studying in a five-year double degree programme that offers a professional qualification to teach Liberal Studies and some humanities subjects in local secondary schools.

Introduced in Hong Kong schools in 2009, Liberal Studies is one of the four core subjects in the city’s senior secondary school curriculum. Its six modules touch on issues related to “Hong Kong Today”, “Modern China”, “Globalisation” and other topics.

The Education Bureau at the time had promoted the compulsory subject as a way to strengthen critical thinking skills and raise students’ awareness of contemporary issues. But the subject has come under fire from Chinese state media and pro-Beijing figures over the past year, as critics blamed it for inciting students to join the pro-democracy protests that erupted in June 2019.

"August 31, 2019" protest tear gas frontline
Protest scenes from August 31, 2019. Photo: Studio Incendo.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in May that her administration would not let the current education system become a “doorless chicken coop,” without any regulation. Schools should protect students from being “poisoned” by the spread of “false and biased information,” she said.

The city’s leader said the government would this year unveil plans to tackle the subject of Liberal Studies, a remark which has deepened concern among Phoebe and her peers that the authorities will kill off the subject entirely.

“Many people in our degree course were frustrated and said: ‘We may all be unemployed’,” the 22-year-old recalled.

Phoebe said she has been considering getting additional training to teach students with special needs or to teach the International Baccalaureate diploma programme. This would give her more career options in case Liberal Studies was axed.

Carrie Lam
Carrie Lam speaks at the Hong Kong education summit co-hosted by Wen Wei Po and the Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers on July 11, 2020.

A task force which reported to the government recommended in September that Liberal Studies remain a core subject in the university entrance exam, but said authorities should consider making textbook screening mandatory.

The proposal came a month after educators voiced concerns over political censorship, as six publishers revised the content of their Liberal Studies textbooks following a voluntary review by the Education Bureau.

The amendments included removing a photo of a “Lennon Wall” filled with pro-democracy messages and deleting the phrase “separation of powers.” The latter triggered another debate, as Lam and her officials insisted the city has an “executive-led” government, with no formal checks and balances between the executive, judiciary and legislature, despite previous statements to the contrary from top judges.

HKU student Vivian told HKFP that although the textbook amendments were worrying, teachers could still use their own teaching materials. The 23-year-old designed her own worksheets for students when she was a trainee teacher last autumn.

“The school I taught in did not check or proof-read the worksheets. They also did not say what can or cannot be covered,” she recalled.

protest student human chain
Hong Kong students stage a human chain protest on September 26, 2019. Photo: Studio Incendo.

Phoebe and Johnny said there were similar arrangements in their own schools. Following a general strike last November, however, teachers at Phoebe’s school were told they should not mention protests in their teaching materials and a handout that referred to a student human chain demonstration was shelved.

There were new fears this month that the government was tightening its grip on lesson content when the Education Bureau cancelled the registration of a teacher at Alliance Primary School for allegedly disseminating Hong Kong independence messages via his lesson plan, worksheets and other materials.

The authorities said the punishment was intended to get rid of a minority of “bad apples” and defend the “dignity” of the education sector. The teacher has filed an appeal against the penalty that bars him from teaching for life, while critics blasted the punishment as “severe and unwarranted.”

HKU Liberal Studies teachers
Johnny. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Johnny said the decision sent a ominous message about the dangers he may face when discussing politics or other controversial issues in class. “I have to be more careful with each word or sentence that I utter in the classroom. After all, there are many pairs of eyes on us.”

Both Johnny and Vivian said it was essential for Liberal Studies teachers to tailor worksheets to their students. But they may refrain from using handouts or slideshows when covering sensitive topics, in order to avoid creating “black-and-white proof” that could be used against them in the future.

“Some groups are constantly reviewing materials used by teachers; that makes me very alert. Maybe I will add a disclaimer to say I don’t support Hong Kong independence,” Johnny said.

While the trio admitted the row over Liberal Studies had left them concerned, they remain determined to join the teaching profession next year. Johnny said his motivation was similar to many youngsters who aspired to become journalists after the year-long protests in order to “safeguard the truth.”

HKU Liberal Studies teachers
(From left to right) Vivian, Johnny and Phoebe at the University of Hong Kong, Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“[The de-registration] made me more determined to take up this job. If we don’t do it, maybe there will be teachers coming from the mainland. Then how can we defend the values that we cherish now?” the 23-year-old asked.

Phoebe said the controversies showed Hong Kong has entered an era in which an individual could be incriminated by his or her speech. She said teachers would never know when they may be seen as “crossing the line” but they should not hold back from telling the truth in the classroom.

“We can already see that Hong Kong can’t tolerate diverse voices, let alone any words of truth… [we would] rather die for speaking out than live and be silent,” she said.

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.