National Education

Anna Wu: liberal icon who can handle a political hot potato

Anna Wu stepped into the middle of the national education row to head the review committee, and emerged unscathed

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 October, 2012, 8:06am

Few would understand what it means to take the heat as clearly as executive councillor Anna Wu Hung-yuk. It was Wu, a solicitor and liberal icon of the Hong Kong government, who headed the committee set up to review plans to introduce the national education curriculum in all public schools.

It was one of the thorniest issues the government has had to tackle since Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying took office just over three months ago.

The curriculum had already sparked a protest march through the city by up to 90,000 people, amid claims that it was an attempt to "brainwash" pupils. Wu's committee, which met for the first time on August 23, was set up to address the controversy. Instead it sparked more huge protests at the government's Tamar headquarters.

The chief executive later defended his team's ability to handle difficult issues by saying: "I know the kitchen is hot, that's why we need people in it."

Critics had denounced Wu's appointment as political window dressing and an attempt by Leung to distract public attention from the failings of the Secretary for Education, Eddie Ng Hak-kim. Others had said her task was to buy time for Leung to cultivate a policy to please protesters without upsetting Beijing.

In the end, the committee "suggested" that the government shelve the curriculum guidelines, leaving schools to decide whether to teach the subject or not.

The suggestions proved acceptable by those opposing the subject and they dropped plans to hold another round of "Occupy Tamar" protests, which had drawn tens of thousands of people. The political time-bomb was successfully defused.

Now many believe Wu took up the post of head of the Committee on the Implementation of Moral and National Education to protect one of Hong Kong's prime values, the favouring of personal liberty over national identity.

Wu, 61, is no stranger to the political spotlight. She was a pro-democracy fighter under British rule and a member of the Hong Kong Observers, a concern group for rights of Hong Kong people formed in the 1970s.

Her campaigning involved her in a public opinion study that found Hongkongers favoured independence. Leung joined some of the discussions which concluded that Hong Kong should return to the motherland.

In a recent interview with RTHK, she described the handover in 1997 as inevitable. "My reaction to change is that we shouldn't avoid it. We should accept challenges," she said.

She was among the last batch of legislators appointed by the British colonial government, and ruffled a few more feathers, especially among businesses, by fighting for equal opportunities laws.

Wu was the driving force behind the setting up of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) in 1996, and she was its chairwoman for a few years. She sees herself as obliged to advocate change from the status quo, but says the key is to strike a balance. Perhaps this explains her long-time belief that opposition political parties in Hong Kong should "roll up their sleeves" and think from the perspective of future governors.

Wu accepted an invitation by former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen to enter Exco in 2009, despite the inevitable perception of her becoming pro-establishment.

Political analyst James Sung Lap-kung thinks Wu found a good way of appeasing both sides of the political spectrum in her dealings with the national education saga. Suggesting shelving the curriculum guidelines instead of invalidating them, meant schools could make independent decisions on whether or not to use the controversial guidelines. "It was a fine balance. It was quite a personal achievement for her to strike such a balance," he said.

Some pundits are now arguing she could be Hong Kong's future leader.

But a Civil Alliance Against National Education spokesman, Andrew Shum Wai-nam, said he believed the government's policy U-turn represented a victory for the people. While Wu played a part in advocating a more liberal approach, an about-face would not have happened without the central government's blessing.

"What we are concerned about now is whether, in future, all policy decisions must go through the scrutiny of Beijing," Shum said.

Wu has always advocated speaking up clearly and without fear accepting any consequences. This could explain her decision in 2001 as EOC chairperson to sue a number of housing estate residents for discriminating against HIV-positive patients at a nearby health centre.

Speaking to the media two days before the first protest against national education on July 29, she said that the government should show political wisdom in resolving the controversy.

So far Wu has showed she is happy to step into the heat of the kitchen - and survive.




Age: 61

Currently: Chairwoman of the Committee on the Implementation of Moral and National Education Executive Councillor

Previously: Chairwoman of the Equal Opportunities Commission (1999-2003)
Legislative Councillor (1993-1995)
Founding member of the Hong Kong Observers in 1975