Hong Kong’s education secretary has brushed aside concerns over self-censorship at schools while maintaining that it was their duty to ensure they did not have any titles that might endanger national security.
Kevin Yeung’s remarks came after local media reported on Monday that hundreds of books which touched on topics such as the 2019 protests and the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown had been removed from some school libraries.
According to Ming Pao, three secondary schools removed more than 400 books since last June, with one school alone removing 204 books. The Education Bureau (EDB) published guidelines last February requiring schools to ensure that materials do not endanger national security.
One teacher interviewed by Ming Pao said schools were not given concrete criteria, so they must set their own standards when considering whether books might be in violation of the law. Titles that were retired included those related to the protests against the axed extradition law, the Umbrella Movement, the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and jailed pro-democracy activists like Joshua Wong.
The education chief, who was officiating an event for two lawmakers with an education background, said the government’s guidelines were “very clear.” The EDB would provide support if schools encountered any problems, Yeung added.
Yeung also said that it was the schools’ responsibility to make sure their libraries did not contain books that endangered national security, as publications can impact students’ thoughts and mindset.
In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure. The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.
When asked whether the national security law had forced schools to self-censor or if the removal of books would hinder students’ learning of extracurricular knowledge, Yeung said those were “two separate things.”
“Whether or not there is the national security law, schools need to educate students to think positively, teach them to love and protect their own country, enhance their knowledge through textbooks and extracurricular reading, and cultivate the correct values,” Yeung said.
“The law also mentioned a school’s responsibility to promote national security education, and there is no contradiction between the two,” Yeung added.
Apart from school libraries, the city’s public libraries have also purged titles since the national security law took effect in June 2020, with the first removal occurring just days after its enactment. More books were later taken off the shelves over national security concerns and the government refused to give the legislature the list of banned publications to avoid “wide circulation of such library materials with malicious intent.”