Lam says she is a victim of ‘white terror’, as Hong Kong chief executive candidates face off
John Tsang shuts down rival’s claim, says recent incidents in the city were the ‘real white terror’
Hong Kong’s three chief executive candidates, John Tsang Chun-wah, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and Woo Kwok-hing have for the first time appeared together to debate the key issues ahead of the election later this month.
Sunday’s event was organised by the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, which has 43 votes in the 1,194-member Election Committee that will pick the city’s leader on March 26.
All three candidates took turns to answer questions from the union voters as well as some 400 educators in the audience.
In his opening remarks, Tsang said over the past five years, Hong Kong’s education sector had been “too miserable to look back on”, with high-pressure exams imposed and more and more student suicides.
Woo said he did not understand why the two other candidates, as top officials, had turned a blind eye to the city’s lack of education resources until now. “Did they do their job?” he asked.
Lam said she was the product of Hong Kong’s excellent education system, and the only candidate who received local education throughout her schooling. She said she promised to invest HK$5 billion of additional recurrent fund into education.
The candidates will meet again on Tuesday at a forum organised by the city’s electronic media, where they will directly grill each other on their election platforms among other issues. A third debate, jointly held by the pan-democratic and the pro-establishment camps of the Election Committee, is set for March 19.
Q: How do we restart political reform and enable civic nomination?
Tsang: I will restart the political reform process because Hongkongers have wanted universal suffrage for a long time. I know why Carrie doesn’t want to restart it – she has failed once. Why would she want to face another failure again?
I know why she said she had deep feelings about the last reform exercise – of course, it led to Occupy Central. This was a very serious matter.
I will restart the reform process without any presumption, but a thorough consultation. If Hongkongers can have one person, one vote, the next chief executive will have much greater credibility and this will greatly smoothen governance. Why not do it?
Woo: Carrie Lam said we should do things according to the Basic Law. I was a judge and I know laws very well. The 8.31 decision is not in the Basic Law. Article 45 says the way to elect a chief executive should be according to Hong Kong’s reality, and be achieved gradually. The 8.31 decision is not Hong Kong’s reality because nobody would accept it. My proposal is to increase the voter base of the election committee from 250,000 to 1 million, and the threshold of gaining a ballot to one eight of the total nominations. Then by 2022, we will have universal suffrage with one person, one vote.
Lam: The Basic Law is the most important law for Hong Kong. It stipulates clearly that civic nomination is against Article 45. So it’s hard to realise civil nomination according to the law.
Q: What Mrs Lam quoted from the HKU governance review report is just an annex, not the conclusion of the report. The report concluded that the chief executive should not continue to serve as council governor and should return the power to appoint council members to the council. Recently the HKU council has decided to punish whistle blowers severely. In a worst case scenario, whistle blowers could be sued, not just fired. We are very concerned that this “white terror” will spread to the whole of Hong Kong. And what’s worse, the chief executive has started to sue legislators. Will Hong Kong, under your rule, become a place with only one voice?
Lam: I said clearly that I was quoting [former] judge Peter Nguyen of the three-person panel. He wrote his views in the annex because he could not agree with the views of the other two panel members. I have been the latest victim of “white terror” with my friends, including [actress] Siao Fong-fong, affected just for supporting me. Though she has been suffering from hearing problems, she still made a video to support me. But she was attacked online for this. This should not be tolerated. We need to have a sense of objectivity and tolerance, and should not attack those close to a person just because you don’t like that person.
Tsang: I do not agree with Carrie. Online comments are not “white terror”. There have been a series of incidents lately – everybody knows what these incidents are – that are real white terror. Many online comments are sincere responses from young people who feel like expressing their opinions. If we try to gag them, this will be white terror. Freedom of speech is our core value. Young people may not have the opportunities to write long essays or newspaper articles to let their voices be heard. So I hope people can pay more attention to online comments.
Woo: I believe we should set up a law to protect whistle blowers. They should not lose their jobs for speaking the truth. If I become chief executive, I will not sue legislators. [Suing legislators] is really not a good trend and will cause more polarisation. I feel we should have more tolerance and respect. I will definitely set up laws – a whistle blower protection law and document law – to prevent records from being destroyed.
Q: There have been more and more cases of students committing suicide, but the Education Bureau has still forced schools to take the Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA). Would the candidates promise to cancel the TSA and offer one social worker to be based in each school?
Tsang: I agree, the TSA should be cancelled. We don’t need this kind of exam, which focuses too much on drilling. We should spend more time finding out the different needs of students.
We can make use of technology. For example, we can survey students’ comments on Facebook and look out for any issues that need following-up. Ultimately, it depends on how much we care about the students with our hearts.
Woo: It’s very sad that students commit suicide. The TSA may probably be one of the reasons. In the long-term, we should set up a committee to find out the reasons for student suicide.
Lam: Education policy is supposed to provide stability and space for students and teachers. It is impossible to cancel assessments completely, and the TSA is a form of assessment. It has much room to improve. I think we should suspend the TSA, but not simply cancel it.
It is necessary for schools to offer counselling for students. We need to provide one social worker in each school. If we don’t have enough resources, we should provide more. There have been many limited cash grants in the past, which have made policy management unstable. Why is there such a phenomenon? It depends on the person who manages the finances.
Q: The Education Bureau has required schools to spend 20 hours teaching the Basic Law, out of 100 hours of Chinese history time, shocking frontline teachers. How do we prevent politics from interfering in education?
Tsang: I agree that we should give more power to teachers and schools to manage their own education, because teachers understand students and their schools most. In the past, the Education Bureau has micromanaged education affairs, so we should give power back to schools and teachers. The Basic Law should indeed be understood by everybody. It is good to incorporate it into education material, so students understand their rights and responsibilities.
Woo: I don’t agree that politics should intrude in education. The views of professional teachers and school principals should be respected. A thorough consultation to improve our education system is needed.
Lam: It is very difficult to expect the chief executive to be an expert on education. The chief executive needs to listen and include teachers’ opinions in policies. I will require the next education minister, deputy minister and permanent secretary to always listen to teachers’ professional opinions and I hope to find a person with professional education knowledge to be the next education minister. The Basic Law is the most important law in the “one country two systems” policy. So students should understand more about it.
Q: Less than half of our children will be able to benefit from the recently-launched free kindergarten education policy. How will you strengthen kindergarten education, the foundation of humanity?
Tsang: We need to set up salary grades for kindergarten teachers to attract talents into the profession. Early childhood teachers are very important for the benefits of our children.
Woo: The free kindergarten policy now only covers half-day schools. A month ago I visited a kindergarten in Mong Kok for children aged 0-6. Many parents want to use their services because the kindergarten it is open until 7pm. But under the free kindergarten policy, these parents won’t receive enough subsidies to afford this kindergarten. I hope to raise the recurrent budget on education to 4.5 per cent of GDP, and I hope this can provide enough funding for these parents.
Lam: Kindergarten education not only helps small children, but also releases women’s productivity as it enables mothers to go back to work. I will talk with education providers to explore how to increase free kindergarten places. More funding should be tilted towards kindergarten education than other areas such as university.
Q: There hasn’t been enough resources or referral systems appointed to special education. How can this be improved?
Tsang: We should provide more time and help for students with special needs to integrate. We should first help their special needs with teachers with special training, and on the other hand, help them to integrate into school life so they can adjust into daily life. I have given HK$10 billion to a care fund to help these students and I hope we can make it recurrent.
Woo: It would be better to let those with special education needs join normal classes. But the trouble comes when we do not have enough resources and teachers who are properly trained. We need more resources to solve the problem.
Lam: Government departments have been doing their own thing on special education, with the social welfare department in charge of students aged 0-3 years old, and the education bureau in charge of students aged 3 to 18 years old. We need to review this system to provide consistent services. We also need to give recognition to teachers providing special education. We should study the possibility of setting up positions for “specialist teachers”. This can also be applied to teachers for ethnic minorities.
Q: The eight universities organised a referendum on whether the chief executive should remain their default chancellor, and 90 per cent voted no. The chief executive’s appointment of Arthur Li Kwok-cheung and Junius Ho Kwan-yiu as heads of the councils of the University of Hong Kong and Lingnan University has greatly impacted the institutions. Will you support amending the universities’ ordinances to abolish the chief executive’s default role as their chancellors?
Tsang: I don’t think the government should micromanage. The power should be delegated to the universities. The chief executive should only keep his or her ceremonial role as chancellor. But if universities have views on this, they can make their proposals to the next government and the issue can be discussed in detail.
Woo: I totally agree that we should cancel the chief executive’s default role as chancellor. It dates back to colonial times, when the colonial governor was the chancellor in order to promote the statuses of the universities. We don’t need the chief executive to have this role any more.
But of course, if a university wants to invite the chief executive to be their head, they can do so.
Lam: On the three-person committee to review HKU’s governance structure, judge Peter Nguyen said he couldn’t see any evidence of chief executive-appointed council members interfering in the university’s freedom. The eight universities are supported by public money, so they need to be responsible to society. The chief executive appointing council members is one way of achieving this.
I will talk less about higher education institutions so they can enjoy their freedom. I will care more about early childhood and basic education.
Q: What is your public finance strategy? How will you make use of it to make Hongkongers happy?
Tsang: There are many unexpected things. One would not expect some developers would be willing to bid for a lot at 20 or 30 per cent above the market price. So the thing is to look at expenditure rather than surplus.
I have doubled the annual expenditure since I became financial secretary nine years ago. There’s year-on-year growth of more than ten per cent.... You can’t say this is being mean with money.
Woo: We should invest more in areas that benefit Hong Kong people.
Lam: We have an embarrassing surplus. Looking at the treasury’s report, if we had not turned down some dividends from the Hong Kong Monetary Authority for two years, the government reserve would have reached HK$1000 billion now.
My philosophy is that we should courageously invest in the future to expand the economy and increase our GDP. Then we’ll have more sources of revenue and less reliance on land revenue and other existing sources, which largely hinge on our GDP.