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Hong Kong localism and independence

No way: Hong Kong education minister rejects calls for guidelines on discussing independence in schools

Eddie Ng says he will leave it to the professionalism of teachers and principals to curb independence advocacy in schools

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 August, 2016, 5:39pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 August, 2016, 11:38pm

Hong Kong’s education minister on Saturday ruled out imposing guidelines on schools for dealing with independence talk, saying the government would rely on the “professionalism” of teachers and principals to curb advocacy.

The response from Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim was aimed at reassuring those who have been clamouring for clarity after he spelled out this week that any discussion in schools on separating Hong Kong from China should be supervised by teachers and within the limits of the Basic Law.

[The schools] have accumulated experience in many matters,” Ng said. “The existing Education Ordinance and professional codes are already in place for teachers. And [we should] trust the professionalism of the schools, principals and teachers in handling such matters.”

Ng has been under intense pressure to smooth the storm set off by the Education Bureau last week when it warned that teachers could lose their jobs if they encouraged independence advocacy in schools.

While schools and teachers’ representatives agreed the government should rely on the professionalism of educators, a Basic Law expert called the approach “ridiculous”, warning it left a grey area regarding criminal offence.

“It is important that the school should be able to inform students whether their conduct, actions or discussions are in accordance with the Basic Law,” said barrister Alan Hoo, a local deputy to China’s top political advisory body.

“Such legal advice could only be given by the secretary for justice or the Education Bureau, and they should do it as soon as possible.”

But the minister insisted no additional guidelines were needed, while stressing that independence advocacy should not be allowed on campuses.

Students should be able to discuss the contentious idea under the guidance of teachers, he said, but did not specify any boundaries.

“The existing Education Ordinance and professional codes are already in place for teachers, which are sufficient reference for schools, ” Ng said. “It is not necessary to issue additional guidelines on the issue of Hong Kong independence.”

As for plans by some localist groups to distribute leaflets on the first day of the school year to promote the idea of independence, Ng said it should not be allowed by the schools as he had learned that such publications preached violence and illegal actions.

The Association of the Heads of Secondary Schools’ Lee Suet-ying agreed that teachers should be able to adopt good measures in guiding students on political discussions.

The government had to drop the idea of issuing guidelines as it would be almost impossible to specify all the acceptable and unacceptable situations and circumstances for independence discussions, Professional Teachers Union president Fung Wai-wah said.

He said the professional codes stated clearly that teachers should not incite or mislead students into any biased belief.

A professional educator would provide factual and objective arguments on a certain subject to train students on critical thinking, engage them in comprehensive discussions, and encourage them to make independent judgements, he said.

“The process of thinking and discussion is most important. The teachers should not request students to come up with only one conclusion.”

But Fung added that the bureau’s recent warning about disqualifying teachers who encouraged independence talk had already created panic among educators.

The University of Hong Kong’s student union president, Althea Suen Hiu-nam, said it was absurd for the Education Bureau to ban independence talk in schools or prohibit students from forming concern groups as they were entitled to freedom of speech.

“The ideological trend of an independent Hong Kong is not very popular among secondary schools,” she said. “The move by the Education Bureau will only stir up resistance among students and attract more public attention to the matter.”

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying had earlier said this was not a matter of freedom of expression.