Can Hong Kong’s teachers really be banned from talking independence in class?

Educators want a legal basis and clarification from authorities over threat to disqualify them if they advocate city’s independence in schools

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 August, 2016, 11:11pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2016, 4:51pm

The lack of a full explanation by authorities of the legal grounds behind a stern warning that teachers who promote Hong Kong independence risk being struck off has sparked widespread concern among educators.

A check by the Post into the Education Ordinance also found the chief executive and the permanent secretary for education have the power to limit discussions of politically sensitive issues, although legal experts believe banning fair discussions on such topics altogether would likely be a breach of free speech.

The Education Bureau has not responded to Post requests since Sunday – when the warning was issued – for a legal basis and clarification. A teachers’ union with more than 90,000 members on Tuesday urged the government to explain whether educators would lose their jobs by discussing the pros and cons of ­independence with students.

‘Like knife above teacher’s head’: educators criticise talk of banning discussion of independence in school, while secondary student activists vow to push on

While former University of Hong Kong law dean Johannes Chan Man-mun said there was no law banning mere discussion of independence, the ordinance’s section 84 states the chief executive may prohibit spreading information or expressing opinions with a “clearly biased political nature” in schools.

Its subsidiary regulation 98 further stipulates the permanent secretary may give schools written guidance to ensure unbiased political information and opinions.

The ordinance’s sections 46 and 47 state the permanent secretary can refuse or cancel teachers’ registrations if they engage in misconduct or jeopardise order and discipline in school.

Human rights lawyer Chong Yiu-kwong said the clauses could enable leaders to regulate discussions on independence in schools but the regulations should be in accordance with the laws.

“If objective discussions on both the pros and cons of independence are not allowed, it will be very likely a breach of freedom of expression,” Chong, who is also vice-president of the Professional Teachers’ Union, said.

A bureau spokesman criticised the union for confusing “advocating independence” with “discussing independence”. He said any pro-independence proposals or activities should not appear in schools, and the union should understand the difference between those ­activities and normal education.

But as in previous statements, he did not cite any specific sections under the ordinance to back up the remarks, nor did he explain whether mentioning the potential benefits of independence, and its illegal status and disadvantages, would count as promotion.

Watch what you say about Hong Kong independence, CY Leung warns local schools

Chong criticised the government for “creating fear out of nothing”, saying very few teachers found independence a topic of discussion until the warning put the issue in the limelight. He added that the existing Code for the Education Profession had been effective in regulating teachers’ conduct and that the bureau’s warning was unnecessary.

Liberal studies teacher Cheung Yui-fai said since independence was a hot topic, it would be natural for teachers to include it in classes. But he said teachers might now choose not to talk about the issue at all to play it safe.

Wong Wai-shing, vice-chairman of the pro-establishment Federation of Education Workers, also urged the government to explain what level of discussion on independence would be against the warning, and punishable.