Student leader Joshua Wong gets first talk with Hong Kong education chief in 6 years – but it’s ‘point taken, same old attitude’
Activists get fleeting chance to speak with Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung over controversies including review mechanism for textbooks
Student activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung held a rare dialogue with Hong Kong’s education chief on Friday morning – a first for the former Occupy movement leader since 2012.
Wong, who as a 15-year-old led protests against the implementation of national education in Hong Kong six years ago, and about 20 fellow activists showed up at a secondary school that Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung was visiting to press for a dialogue over various controversies including how the government reviews the content of school textbooks.
Yeung spoke with the activists for about 10 minutes outside the gates of the school in West Kowloon as they challenged the bureau’s textbook review committee, which had found terms such as China “taking back” Hong Kong inappropriate for the description of the city’s handover in 1997.
The committee, composed of unnamed external reviewers and experts from the bureau, also rejected several common phrases when checking a history textbook, including “Hong Kong is located south of China” and “the Chinese Communist Party’s one-party rule”.
“The committee is like a ‘black box’, the public won’t know the criteria for reviewing a textbook. During your term, will you disclose who is on the panel or just let it continue as it is?” Wong said via a loudspeaker before passing the microphone to the education secretary.
Yeung reiterated that it was important to maintain the anonymous review system.
He then turned to the activists, some in their 20s, and asked: “All the textbooks you studied went through this mechanism. When you read them, did you really have such doubts [about the mechanism], did it have such a huge impact on your minds?”
He added that there had been no curriculum-wide guidelines on terminology since 1998, and he saw no need for more.
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There were no handshakes, but also no confrontations. Yeung accepted a petition from Wong’s political party Demosisto, posed for a picture and returned to the school.
However, both sides later downplayed the significance of their first face-to-face dialogue. Yeung found it “odd” for reporters to ask about the exchange.
“Sometimes we are constrained by time or locality, but in this term we’ll be happy to communicate with all sectors of society,” he said.
Wong, one of the student leaders of the pro-democracy Occupy sit-ins of 2014 as well as being a figurehead in the fight against national education in schools in 2012, noted the exchange with officials was rare but he was not too surprised.
“This is what public officials are supposed to do,” he said.
“Back then in the anti-national education movement, we talked to [then education secretary] Eddie Ng Hak-kim several times.”
Wong said Yeung did not relax his stance on the textbook committee’s transparency, so he did not sense any substantive change from the government. “Point taken, but same old attitude,” he said.
A government source said the bureau received information from police on Thursday that Demosisto would hold a protest and Yeung was prepared to speak to the activists directly.
Upon arrival at the school, Yeung offered to talk after attending the event but some protesters chased after him as if to storm into the school. His political assistant Jeff Sze Chun-fai and press secretary came out to reassure the activists they would get to talk to Yeung, moving the time to before the ceremony the official was attending.
The source and Wong both stressed the discussion was not prearranged.
Speaking separately on the recent controversy over Hong Kong’s mother tongue, and whether Mandarin would replace Cantonese, Yeung said most daily conversations were done in Cantonese and it was unnecessary for him to repeat that point.
The bureau earlier issued an article by a scholar in mainland China’s State Language Commission which argued that Hong Kong’s official language should be Mandarin.