Hong Kong’s education sector underwent a turbulent year in the wake of the mass pro-democracy protests. The sector, seen by pro-Beijing forces as one of the instigators of the unrest, has seen teachers sacked and major changes to a key school subject designed to promote critical thinking.

Former lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen, who is vice president of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, told HKFP that while the situation is very grim, he is still hopeful that 2021 could bring better news.

Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam questioned the effectiveness of Hong Kong’s education in her policy address, saying that there was a need to “enhance” the quality of teachers and bolster national identity and national security education.

2020 also saw the deregistration of two teachers for allegedly promoting Hong Kong independence and teaching factually incorrect accounts of Chinese history.

The government also announced big changes to Liberal Studies, a core subject in the senior secondary school programme which is designed to teach students to think critically.

The subject was criticised by the government and pro-Beijing media as encouraging students to take part in protests. Under the proposed changes the content and teaching time of the subject would be halved, and more focus would be put on content about China.

Ip told HKFP that education had become the scapegoat for the government’s mistakes and Lam was trying to blame young people and education in general for her own blunders.

Carrie Lam 2020 Policy Address. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

In her recent policy address Lam did not reflect on her own role in triggering the protests “and of course, she did not admit any mistake committed by herself and her government. On the contrary, she put the blame on education, put the blame on the subject of Liberal Studies… So what she is doing, I think, is practically finding a scapegoat,” he said.

Ip questioned whether the changes made by the government and by Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung were actually for the benefit of education and the students.

“I think, certainly, he put political correctness above the benefit to the students,” said Ip.

Ip acknowledged that it was important for students to understand China but they should learn about “the whole picture“ and not just certain aspects.

With the proposed changes to Liberal Studies, while teachers still have “a certain level of freedom” to choose the way they teach the designated materials, Ip said they would still be contrained by the demands of the examination, if not by the school administration.

Kevin Yeung. File photo: RTHK Screenshot.

“For example, what if a particular teacher teaches a subject, always travelling out of the syllabus, he or she would be probably in trouble, when the school administration is alert about it.”

Ip said the Education Bureau had violated its own guidelines because it failed to resist political pressure from the pro-establishment camp. Using the disqualification of teachers as an example, he said it had acted against its own advice to schools to reject anonymous complaints.

The chilling effect of the government’s actions has already been felt in the classroom, as Ip said teachers have opted for the “safest way” to teach when it comes to sensitive materials.

According to Ip, teachers have become more cautious with sensitive topics or material and often retreat to material approved by the Education Bureau. He cited China’s Constitution Day as an example.

“Some teachers told me that they are instructed to read according to the materials provided by the Education Bureau, they read the materials word by word, ‘Don’t change one word, don’t add one word, don’t reduce one word, so speak exactly to what the materials is like’, so to avoid falling into any trouble.”

2020 Constitution Day forum. Photo: gov.hk, via video screenshot.

Not only is such nervousness detracting from the quality of education, Ip said it could also damage relations between teachers and students and even between the teaching staff.

Teachers were more cautious “because you don’t know which student is going to complain, or which student would talk to their parents, and the parents might complain.”

Having to leave the Legislative Council did not help Ip’s cause. He and 14 other pan-democrats resigned in solidarity in November after four colleagues were disqualified by the government for “endangering national security.”

Ip said his resignation meant he had lost the platform and resources to speak out for education. But he could continue his advocacy as a leader of the teachers’ union and would not personally miss the Legislative Council.

“From society’s view I think our role is to play the check and balance role in the legislature, but at the same time, leaving the legislature, for myself, and as far as I know, for many other legislators in the democratic camp, it’s a kind of relief, because serving the LegCo is not a very comfortable life.”

Fifteen Hong Kong pro-democracy lawmakers announce to collectively resign after Beijing passed a decision giving the local authorities powers to oust four democrats with immediate effect. Photo: Democratic Party.

Looking ahead, Ip said he hoped for a better year but it all depended on the government and the pro-establishment camp.

“They can make things even worse, and of course, we know that it’s very likely because nowadays political considerations are much much higher than other considerations, even fairness, from the government’s viewpoint.”

Even not accepting anonymous complaints would make a big difference, said Ip. He suggested a regulatory body for the profession similar to those for lawyers, social workers and doctors.

For him, clear statutory procedures and rules would be a great improvement on the current “blackbox” in where the government and bureaucrats handled the complaints against teachers themselves.

Ip said the situation could worsen in 2021 since the Legislative Council lacked effective opposition and the education sector could face more attacks under a task force set up to review teaching materials.

Pro-establishment lawmakers holding press conference. File photo: The Stand News

The former lawmaker said he hoped the pro-establishment camp would realise that the education system affected their own children and questioned whether they really want a “backward” system.

“Are they trying to achieve a system like this for their own children, or for their grandchildren? It’s stupid, I think. So I hope that they can realise what they are doing is not constructive at all. They always try to depict themselves as constructive…that is the totally the opposite of it.”

Ip said he would fight on by monitoring the government and the pro-establishment camp outside the Legislative Council, especially on the proposed changes to Liberal Studies.

Even if the curriculum was changed in the coming year, Ip said teachers and parents could still preserve the qualities they treasured in the subject in everyday life. Parents could teach their children not to just accept everything that is said by authorities.

Ip also undertook to help teachers fight for their rights, including using the judicial system to appeal against disqualifications.

Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The former lawmaker also urged Hong Kong to make their voices heard in next year’s Legislative Council election, even if some candidates might be disqualified. Pan-democrats might even hope to win a majority and restore crucial checks and balances.

As for himself, Ip said he would enjoy his new-found liberty before deciding what to do next. “I think it’s good for me to take a rest. It has been more than eight years, it’s quite long in the legislature, in this kind of legislature.”

Candice Chau

Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.