Teachers come under attack as more students join Hong Kong protests
Schools criticised for failure to rein in students boycotting classes, staging sit-ins and forming human chains on campus.
Some slam Education Bureau for ‘unclear guidelines’ about unrest, others say it is interfering too much in schools
It was the start of the new school term and secondary schoolteacher Kwan Chin-ki found himself facing students eager to know his position on Hong Kong’s ongoing, increasingly violent anti-government protests.
A liberal studies teacher for more than 10 years, he says it is tricky for teachers to handle such questions.
“We have to be particularly careful,” he says. “Expressing our personal political opinions in school is inappropriate because students may listen to teachers and follow their teachers’ positions blindly.”
Instead of sharing his views, Kwan says, he encourages his students to find out more about the social unrest by gathering information from various sources.
Since the start of term last month, the city’s more than 50,000 primary and secondary schoolteachers have come under pressure from the authorities, students and parents, and have been criticised by mainland media for failure to rein in students taking part in the protests, now in their fifth month.
The Education Bureau says it has received 58 complaints between mid-June and mid-September about teachers’ conduct in relation to the social unrest. Two cases were substantiated, five were not, and the rest are being investigated, the bureau says.
Students have joined the anti-government movement since the term began, by boycotting classes, staging sit-ins, forming human chains and taking part in street protests too.
At the elite Shatin Tsung Tsin Secondary School on Tuesday, more than 100 of its 900 students lined up around a basketball court and sang Glory to Hong Kong, the de facto anthem of the protest movement. Some waved an American flag.
Their actions drew immediate censure online from Beijing loyalists who accused the students of advocating independence for Hong Kong and criticised teachers, calling them the culprits behind bringing politics into schools.
The school apologised for not intervening immediately, defended its students and promised that teachers would dissuade students from taking part in unlawful and violent acts.
The Education Bureau responded by saying schools are meant to be places of learning, not platforms for making political demands. It has stated its position against politics on campuses and has begun checking with schools about students and staff involved in political activities, but has largely left schools to decide if punishment is needed.
The autonomy enjoyed by more than 1,000 primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong is now also under attack from those who feel teachers have failed to keep their students in check.
The bureau itself has been criticised for its handling of schools involved in the unrest. Some educators complain that the bureau’s guidelines to schools have been unclear, but others accuse it of interfering too much.
‘Not good when children are arrested’
Some of the sharpest criticism has come from Chinese state news agency Xinhua, which asked in a commentary this week: “What happened to Hong Kong’s education?”
It lambasted Tsuen Wan Public Ho Chuen Yiu Memorial College, which promised not to expel Form Five student Tsang Chi-kin, 18, who was shot in the chest on October 1 after a group of protesters attacked police in Tsuen Wan. Tsang has been charged with rioting and two counts of assaulting police officers.
Xinhua criticised the school for failing to mention the violent crimes he is accused of, choosing instead to share young people’s concerns about the current situation. Citing the axiom, “spare the rod and spoil the child”, it said teachers “should not shed their responsibility” for students’ violent behaviour.
Some educators have criticised schools that allow students to participate in protest activities.
“Schools are not places for people to express their political demands,” says Wong Kwan-yu, president of the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers (HKFEW). “If students have questions or concerns, they should communicate with teachers to find solutions.”
He blames inadequate school management for failing to protect students from external influence.
There has been a surge in the number of students taking part in protests since October 4, when Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced the ban on the use of masks at demonstrations by invoking the colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance.
Over the past week, students have staged various protests at several top secondary schools, including St Paul’s College in Mid-Levels; Wah Yan College, Hong Kong, in Wan Chai; Sing Yin Secondary School in Ngau Chi Wan; and Tsuen Wan Public Ho Chuen Yiu Memorial College. Apart from singing the protest anthem and wearing black, some showed their contempt for the mask ban by donning helmets, goggles and gas masks.
With more students also joining the increasingly violent street demonstrations, educators are alarmed by the surge in the number arrested.
Police statistics show a rising number of students arrested since the new term began. The 550 people arrested over the protests from September 1 to 27 included 207 secondary school and university students, who made up about 38 per cent. This is a higher proportion of students than before. Among the 1,046 arrested between June 9 and August 31, a quarter, 257, were students.
Aside from Tsang, who was injured in the chest, a 14-year-old Form Three student of Chong Gene Hang College was shot in the leg when police fired live rounds during an anti-mask law protest in Yuen Long on October 4.
Retired principal Tai Hay-lap says it is not good for young children to be arrested. “We should try our best to prevent this from happening.”
Other educators point out that some students may join the protests because of peer pressure.
Wong Kam-leung, a board member of HKFEW Wong Cho Bau Secondary School in Tung Chung, says: “Secondary students are aged between 12 and 18, and have immature minds. They can easily get emotional, or even impulsive, during activities that involve chanting slogans and singing songs.”
Form Six student Yeung, who asked to be identified by only her surname, says she joined protests in and out of school after visiting social media sites like LIHKG and Telegram. She says her teachers did not discourage her and her friends from joining the protests.
“There are many messages on online platforms asking people to join protests,” she says. “Some of our teachers also supported us, saying, ‘You can do your part’.”
Schools need ‘mandatory guidelines’
After the ban on masks was announced last Friday, the Education Bureau issued guidelines for schools, including telling staff and students not to wear masks or cover their faces, except for religious or health reasons.
Veteran educator Chan Chi-chung, who has 26 years’ experience as a secondary school Chinese teacher, says: “The guidelines are not clear, and we even have difficulty explaining them to parents of our students who ask for more
Tai Tak-ching, principal of SKH Tang Shiu Kin Secondary School in Wan Chai, went further, accusing the bureau of “bringing politics into campuses” by applying the anti-mask law to schools.
“From what we understand, schools are not regarded as places for public gatherings or processions, unlawful assembly, unauthorised assembly and riots,” he said on a radio programme.
But retired principal Tai Hay-lap says students are indeed bringing politics into campuses by wearing masks to express political demands. “If you are not sick, you should not be wearing masks every day.”
Others say unclear guidelines are no excuse for schools to do nothing.
Under the school-based management policy introduced by the Education Bureau in 2005, Hong Kong schools have freedom and flexibility in their daily operations, resources management and school development and can develop their own characteristics. School boards also have the power to hire and promote teachers without going through the bureau, which critics say has led to abuse in some schools.
Federation of Education Workers chief Wong thinks the bureau should step in when schools fail to solve management problems.
“The goal of school-based management is for schools to solve their own problems, but when they face problems beyond their reach, the bureau should intervene and provide support,” he says.
Tai Hay-lap, a former Education Commission member, believes a balance can be struck, with the bureau being more hands-on while schools retain their autonomy.
He suggests that the bureau set up a task force comprising chairmen of the various associations of principals, to come up with clearer guidelines for schools. This will help principals struggling to deal with situations such as the arrest of their students.
Tai thinks there should be a mix of mandatory guidelines for dealing with safety and legal issues, for example, and optional ones. But he says it is important to draw up such guidelines with feedback from schools.
“This is not to help either political camp, but for schools to run smoothly and for students to avoid dangerous situations,” he says.
Primary schoolteacher Patrick Yu says teachers are now under pressure from all fronts and it is something they talk about every day.
Before the school term started, parents called him to ask if the school would talk about the political crisis, and some urged him not to mention it at all.
“I think we are walking on a metal wire,” he says. “We have to worry about parents’ reactions and what pupils will tell their parents.”
He also feels the government has begun interfering too much in school affairs, creating “white terror” among teachers.
He points to the case of a secondary school liberal studies teacher who posted a message on Facebook, calling the police rogue cops and cursing their families.
The incident resulted in four police associations complaining to Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung, who later called out the teacher for cursing, and said the bureau would follow up. He said teachers were entitled to hold their own political views, but should not impose them on their students.
The blame game continued with Annie Wu Suk-ching, daughter of catering group Maxim’s founder James Tak Wu, criticising Hong Kong’s education system for failing to create a Chinese national identity among young Hongkongers.
Wu is a standing committee member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference – the top advisory body. Maxim’s outlets have been attacked by protesters since Wu condemned the protests at the United Nations Human Rights Council last month.
“Our education policies have been a total failure since 1997,” Wu told the state-owned China News Service. “They haven’t taught Chinese history starting from kindergarten all the way to secondary school. Children have not been taught to know their country, and they do not even watch flag-raising ceremonies or sing the national anthem. Those children have grown up now, and they identify themselves as Hongkongers, rather than Chinese.”
But education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen believes the Hong Kong government’s problematic policies are the reason why large numbers of young people, including students, are taking part in the protests.
“It is always easy to blame the education system,” Ip says. “The government must look for solutions from its policies. Any deviation from that is an attempt to divert attention and look for a scapegoat.”
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