In a shameless act of self-neutering, the Hong Kong government has announced it has cut ties with the Professional Teachers’ Union (PTU), the city’s largest teachers’ body, hours after China’s official media blasted the union.

The Education Bureau said it would no longer work with the PTU, claiming its deeds and words in recent years had not been in line with the education profession. A spokesman claimed the union was “no different from a political group.”

Education Bureau
Photo: NowTV screenshot.

In its statement, the bureau mimicked allegations against the PTU in articles published by China’s Xinhua news agency and the People’s Daily on Saturday. They include the union’s participation in the Civil Human Rights Front and the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China. 

The two bodies have been accused by pro-Beijing forces of breaching the national security law but have not been declared unlawful organisations, at least for now.

Echoing the national propaganda machine, the bureau fingered the PTU for the anti-extradition bill protests in 2019, which morphed into a protracted social movement. The union was blamed for the involvement of teachers and students in the “violent and illegal activities.”

The bureau said it would no longer hold meetings with the union and its representatives, nor consult it on education issues. Concerns and cases forwarded by the group will not be dealt with, its teacher training courses will not be recognised, and PTU representatives may lose their seats on different government consultation groups.

The bureau took the swift and highly unusual action hours after state media stepped up its attack on the union, which was described as a “tumour that must be rooted out.”

It was the strongest call from China’s official bodies for action against the union, following months of smears and accusations by Hong Kong’s two pro-Beijing newspapers, Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao.

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

Pro-Beijing forces have repeatedly called on the government to outlaw the union.

Chief Secretary John Lee declined to comment on whether authorities would investigate the union, saying only that they would act according to the law if a group goes beyond its scope.

The latest attack by state media appeared aimed at putting more pressure on the government to remove the “tumour” as soon as possible.

Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung, who had been criticised as being too soft in dealing with teachers accused of misconduct, took the cue – and acted.

This is despite the fact that the PTU is still a lawful body with more than 100,000 members.

In taking action after state media made a series of allegations, Yeung – no doubt with the backing of Chief Executive Carrie Lam – surrendered the autonomy supposedly granted to Hong Kong in dealing with the union.

Beijing’s promise of “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” has become the subject of ridicule, if not an item of collective memory, in recent years. The era of “Western ruling Hong Kong,” referring to the central government’s Liaison Office in Western district, has already begun in earnest.

But minister Yeung made history by letting “state media run Hong Kong.”

July 1 Kevin Yeung
Hong Kong’s Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung. File photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

It is the latest demonstration that one of the major concerns of Hong Kong’s last governor Chris Patten about the city’s autonomy after 1997 was far from groundless.

“My anxiety is this: not that this community’s autonomy would be usurped by Peking, but that it could be given away bit by bit by some people in Hong Kong,” he said in his last policy address in 1996. 

He was diplomatic in his prediction – giving the Chinese Communist Party the benefit of the doubt – only to be trashed by the party leadership since the handover.

In that sense, Patten was proved wrong: Beijing did usurp the autonomy it promised Hong Kong in managing the city’s internal affairs. He was however correct in his prediction that autonomy was being given away by some people in Hong Kong.

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The last governor might have thought the likely suspects would be the pro-Beijing circle and loyalists. He might feel surprised and disappointed that people like Carrie Lam and Kevin Yeung, among the elite groomed under the British Hong Kong government, had joined hands with Beijing to erode the city’s autonomy.

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Chris Yeung is Chief Writer at CitizenNews, and the founder and editor of Voice of Hong Kong. He is a veteran journalist who formerly worked with the South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong Economic Journal. He writes on Greater China issues and is the former chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.