Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam has denied her government’s recent decision to cut ties with the city’s largest teacher’s union was the result of pressure from Beijing, accusing the group of tarnishing the image of the city’s education sector.

The Education Bureau announced it will no longer recognise the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union (HKPTU) last Saturday, hours after Chinese state mouthpieces Xinhua and People’s Daily called the union “a poisonous tumour” that must be “eradicated.”

The Chief Executive, Mrs Carrie Lam, attended the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union (HKPTU) 45th Anniversary Reception in May, 2018. Photo: GovHK.

“I fully endorse the bureau’s decision. It is not because of a single article in a particular newspaper,” Lam said on Monday, saying the bureau had “rationalised” the decision in light of recent political developments.

Lam said the situation had shifted since she took office in 2018, when she attended the union’s 45th anniversary celebration, accusing the union of politicising education during the 2019 pro-democracy protests and unrest.

“The anti-extradition row taught us a grave lesson, I have to admit that there’s something wrong in our education sector,” she said. “Thousands of students paid no heed to the law, they took part in illegal activities, even riots. Many teachers helped to organise these activities, some were arrested. They have allowed politics to prevail over education,” she said.

The Chief Executive, Mrs Carrie Lam, attended the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union (HKPTU) 45th Anniversary Reception in May, 2018. Photo shows Mrs Lam (centre) touring an exhibition featuring the history of the HKPTU. Photo: GovHK.

The chief executive also accused the union – which represents over 90 per cent of the city’s teachers – of “hijacking” the sector: “As a result, many people have negative impression of the education sector and this is most unfair to teachers,” said Lam.

Protests erupted in June 2019 over a now-axed extradition bill, escalating into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour, amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment which the authorities have largely blamed on student-aged protesters.

At least three teachers have been disqualified from the profession for life over their involvement in the protests.

The HKPTU has accused the government of using the sector as a “scapegoat” for the protests and imposing “white terror” on the profession. In response to the decision to sever ties, the union said the bureau was disregarding the welfare of the city’s teachers.

Zero tolerance

Lam declined to comment on whether the union is being investigated by law enforcement, but warned the city’s organisations against violating the Beijing-imposed national security law.

“With the enactment of the national security law, no organisation in Hong Kong should risk the bottom line and, as I said a number of times, we will enforce the law stringently and we will not tolerate any illegal activity,” she said.

The Chief Executive, Mrs Carrie Lam, attended the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union (HKPTU) 45th Anniversary Reception in May, 2018. Photo shows Mrs Lam (centre) touring an exhibition featuring the history of the HKPTU. Photo: GovHK.

Lam said the government will continue to consult with other stakeholders in the education sector.

The city’s second-largest teachers’ union, the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers, has around 42,000 members, fewer than half of the HKPTU’s 95,000.

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.