A Hong Kong examinations official who resigned after a question he set in a history paper sparked a furore has spoken of the “immense political pressure” he faced during the affair.

The row over the question in this year’s Diploma of Secondary Education history exam fuelled fears among some critics that academic freedom is coming under threat.

hans yeung wing yu
Hans Yeung. Photo: Internet.

Hans Yeung has now revealed details leading up to his resignation and made a point-by-point rebuttal of the criticism he faced, in a strongly-worded email sent to his colleagues.

In the history exam in May, candidates were asked whether they agreed with the statement “Japan did more good than harm to China in the period of 1900-45.” The question came in for days of criticism by pro-Beijing media in Hong Kong, who claimed it whitewashed Japan’s role in Chinese history and encouraged students to be “traitors.”

Subsequently, the question was scrapped and Yeung, who was the manager responsible for setting the paper, resigned in August. The Education Bureau (EDB) then set up a task force to investigate the incident, and in November concluded that the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA) had failed in its monitoring role and that one of its staff had violated procedures and internal rules.

 HKEAA exam question controversy
“Japan did more good than harm to China in the period of 1900-45. Do you agree with this statement?” Photo: Internet.

In a 3,500-word email sent to colleagues before his departure, Yeung revealed that he resigned under “immense political pressure,” local newspapers which reviewed the email, Apple Daily and Ming Pao, reported on Tuesday.

Yeung wrote that the moment the exam question was retracted on the EDB’s orders, he felt a “guillotine” had been set up, and the blade would drop as soon as the bureau accepted the findings of its task force. Yeung said he sought advice from the HKEAA in July, and was told he was in a dangerous situation and would be fired as soon as the authority’s committee accepted those findings.

Yeung described how he was asked to personally redact the question and students’ answers to it before the exam papers were submitted for marking, and shed tears while doing so. The official, who joined the exams authority in 1994, called it the most “disgraceful” incident of his career and said some of the exam body’s staff felt “humiliated” when questioned by the EDB taskforce.

Yeung said he felt it was no longer safe to continue working for the HKEAA since various drafts and name lists had been leaked. He said state-backed media made public and criticised one of his private social media posts a day before the exam paper was released and the public controversy began.

students DSE coronavirus covid
File Photo: May James/HKFP.

In his email, Yeung also made a point-by-point rebuttal of the EDB task force’s findings. He also said he discovered that his private social media account had been hacked twice and suspected that the controversial history question had been leaked even before the exam took place.

An HKEAA spokesperson told Apple Daily it had accepted Yeung’s resignation but authority did not put pressure on him to step down.

Four HKEAA senior officials either resigned over the incident or were unable to renew their contracts. The authority has appointed a mainland-born professor from Hong Kong’s Lingnan University as its next secretary, the newspaper reported.

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Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.