Hong Kong localism and independence

Authorities must give crystal clear guidelines for teachers in the independence question

Teachers are uncertain what to do should the topic be raised in the classroom, and while the Education Bureau has listed concrete penalties, the directive itself is vague

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 August, 2016, 1:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 August, 2016, 1:02am

Schools are places of instruction and learning. There is nothing wrong with healthy discussion and debate in the classroom. But Hong Kong is becoming so politicised that even primary and secondary education institutions risk becoming battlegrounds for influence. Independence, as the Basic Law makes clear, is a particular no-go area; teachers should not advocate or promote the idea.

A push by groups advocating independence to set up branches in secondary schools has prompted action by the government. The Education Bureau on Sunday warned that teachers promoting the idea risked consequences including losing their jobs. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said schools had an obligation to guide students away from unlawful activities and should discourage the organisation of such groups on campuses. Education Secretary Eddie Ng Hak-kim, speaking yesterday after a surprise trip to Beijing to brief Education Ministry officials, said students could discuss “anything” under the guidance of teachers and within the framework of the Basic Law.

Hong Kong teachers warned they could be struck off for separatist talk in schools

But while the Basic Law makes clear that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China, there is also a section devoted to protection of freedoms, including speech and expression. Independence is not an option for our city and has little support. Although authorities have made their positions plain, teachers are uncertain what to do should the topic be raised in the classroom. As the Professional Teachers’ Union indicated in response to the bureau’s statement, while the penalties are concrete, the directive itself is vague.

With the new school year starting next month, teachers still have valid questions. What should they do if a student asks about independence? Will pupils be able to openly discuss and debate it? At which point will regulations have been violated?

Beijing’s position is that discussion of independence should not be permitted in primary and secondary schools. Professor Wang Zhenmin, the legal affairs chief of the Liaison Office, said on Tuesday such talk would “poison” young minds. But there is also nothing in the law that prevents peaceful discussion of the idea and questions about it are bound to be raised by students.

Seeking independence goes against the Basic Law. Teachers, politicians and other influential people in society should not promote or advocate it. But there is also a need for education authorities to be specific about what can and cannot be discussed. They need to issue crystal clear guidelines.