The head of Hong Kong’s largest teachers’ union says the government is trying to silence members of the profession by imposing a lifetime ban on an educator accused of promoting independence in his lessons.

The Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union is to appeal the Education Bureau’s decision in late September to deregister a primary school Life Sciences teacher at Kowloon Tong’s Alliance School for allegedly “spreading pro-Hong Kong independence” in his classroom.

It was the first time the bureau had deregistered a teacher for anything other than serious criminal or sexual misconduct.

Photo: GovHK.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam has described the case as “a very serious matter,” saying it was necessary to address certain “bad apples” within the teaching profession. Similar comments were echoed by Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung, with Permanent Secretary for Education Michelle Li calling the measures “proportionate and reasonable.”

The city’s teachers, however, are fighting back and the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union, has been working closely with the deregistered teacher to challenge the government’s case. The union has a membership of over 100,000 and represents 85 per cent of the city’s teachers.

Speaking with HKFP, union president Dr Fung Wai-wah said the government’s accusations against the teacher were simply not true. “The Education Bureau is selectively presenting some pieces of information while withholding others.”

A flag-raising ceremony in Hong Kong in celebration of the Chinese National Day on October 1, 2020. Photo: GovHK.

According to Fung, the teacher was using the case of Hong Kong Independence to illustrate contemporary issues regarding freedom of speech in the city to his primary five students. “According to our knowledge, the teacher used some examples to demonstrate freedom of speech in Hong Kong and the crisis we are facing,” he said.

Fung added that videos shown in the teacher’s classes were from government broadcaster RTHK, which he said presented students with “balanced views” on the pros and cons of Hong Kong independence. 

“We might discuss how the teaching materials were designed, but it was certainly not the case of trying to spread the idea of Hong Kong independence. We think the Education Bureau is using this case to try to achieve some political motives.. to spread white terror, to make teachers stop voicing out. We think it is unfair and unjust.”

The alleged offence occurred before the passage in June of the Beijing-imposed national security law, which makes it illegal to advocate Hong Kong’s independence from China.

Union President Fung Wai-wah standing next to a banner which reads “Protect the profession from white terror.” Photo: Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union.

Fung said this case was particularly concerning since the decision to deregister a teacher amounted to a “death penalty” in professional terms. “The teacher can no longer teach in Hong Kong for the rest of his life. It’s quite serious.”

The deregistered teacher has also been banned from entering the city’s school campuses.

The union lodged an appeal to the Education Bureau earlier this month, demanding it withdraw the decision and apologise to the teacher concerned. It is still waiting for the bureau to set a date for the appeal hearing.

Fung said his union would consider seeking a judicial review if the bureau stands by its decision, and has already raised funds for legal fees. “I think that is still one of the alternatives. I believe there are still some good judges and the system is itself still quite fair.”

‘Anti-education’

Fung, who has been the union’s president for over 10 years, told HKFP that he feared the incident marks the beginning of a sustained attack by the government on teachers who refuse to fall in line.

The union chief said the government was “actively trying” to find other teachers to deregister. “We think that it will not be a singular case,” he said, adding that the Education Bureau was trying to create a “chilling effect on teachers.” 

Photo: GovHK.

“So I think they are not just pinpointing teaching. They’re actually trying to spread a chilling effect amongst teachers, so they will not comment on the bad governance or government. Or they will not have any objection made publicly [against] the government’s acts.

This would lead to a deterioration in the quality of the city’s education, he said.

“It is a series of actions the government is taking to try and make teachers shut up and also to teach according to their instructions, which is not to train students to be independent and critical thinkers, but teach them to try to follow instructions or even to become pro-establishment,” he said.  

“All this is not education. It’s anti-education.”

Hindering education

Fung, a senior lecturer in Social Sciences at City University, pondered on how the city’s students may be affected. “The worst will be [if] they will ban us from talking about some topics, for example, the pros and cons of Hong Kong Independence, maybe the government will not allow us to even mention them.” 

“For primary and secondary schools, it will affect students’ learning: they will have a narrower perspective.”

Union President Fung Wai-wah. Photo: Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union.

The professor expressed particular concern for universities. “For the tertiary sector, it will be even worse. For tertiary education, we want to have the freedom to explore knowledge. If there are many red lines, and there are many topics that are banned for discussion, then we cannot do this,” saying that the humanities and social sciences faculties would be “quite affected.”

“If the government continues to do this, it will make education very difficult. There are too many red lines that we should not cross. This self-censorship will hinder teachers from providing students with different viewpoints. So it will hinder their learning.”

‘Affects every teacher’

Although he sees teaching in the humanities as especially hobbled in the current climate, he believes none of the city’s teachers will be left untouched.”It will affect every teacher, not just the ones teaching Liberal Studies or Social Sciences.”

From June 2019 to August 2020, the Education Bureau received 247 complaints of alleged professional misconduct by teachers related to “social incidents,” a spokesperson told HKPF in a statement. Of the complaints, 204 have been fully investigated and 73 of these were found to be unsubstantiated.

Referring to the complaints, Fung said teachers are also being targeted for their actions outside classrooms: “In many of the complaint cases, many of them are actually related to private speech by teachers, not in class [but] through their social media and other means.”

Photo: GovHK.

He added that the teachers were being “condemned” for allegedly “spreading hatred through social media.”

Fung said he feared the increased pressure on teachers to conform to government expectations would deter potential recruits.

“Many potential teachers want to help teach students to think and be independent and critical learners. Under this kind of suppression, whether we still can achieve this education goal is in question. So maybe some of those students or potential teachers will not join the profession.”

Protecting teachers’ rights

Fung said the increased scrutiny of teachers stems from a desire to curb dissent. “In the past, we have been successful in trying to train our students to be independent learners and in critical thinking. I think this is what the government dislikes. If the student and youths can think independently, they will criticise the government’s misgovernment of Hong Kong.

“So I think they will try to indoctrinate or brainwash the next generation so they will be more compliant with the government.”

Fung, however, said he still held out hope teachers can push back against being tools for indoctrinating future generations.

Photo: GovHK.

Commenting on the issue of national security education, the union president said that although schools were obliged to include it in their curriculum, it was something the union opposed. 

However, the professor said teachers still had the freedom to teach the law in a manner which allowed students to think critically about the legislation. “We can teach what the government wants us to teach or we can teach in a better way – present different viewpoints, stimulate students to try to know about the law, not just to receive one-sided opinion.

“There is still some room to manoeuvre so the teaching is not just indoctrination.”

In a climate in which teachers risk being deregistered or doxxed both for their classroom actions and for expressing their political beliefs, Fung said the union’s commitment to protecting the profession was more crucial than ever.

“At this time of crisis, teachers are at risk. What the union and I can do is try to tell them their rights and how to defend them. And also, organise them so we can have collective efforts to fight against unfair treatment. For example, use legal means to try and challenge their decision, and to try and use legally-accepted ways to express our views.”

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Rhoda Kwan

Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.