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Controversy surrounds a Diploma of Secondary Education question on a history paper relating to Sino-Japanese relations. Photo: Handout

Hong Kong exam authority employees resign during controversy over history question on Japan’s relations with China

  • Two stand down from Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority, which was asked by Education Bureau to probe ‘inappropriate comments’ online
  • Resignations emerge as 54,000 sign petition accusing government of interfering with Diploma of Secondary Education exam
An exam authority employee accused of posting anti-government comments online ahead of a raging controversy in Hong Kong over a history question on Sino-Japanese relations has resigned, along with a colleague from the same department, the Post can reveal.

A source said that Lo Ka-yiu and his subordinate would leave their roles this summer at the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA), which was asked by the Education Bureau on Thursday to probe reports of “inappropriate comments” allegedly published by Lo and a third member of staff.

The two resignations emerged on Saturday as more than 54,000 people signed a petition accusing the bureau of interfering in the city’s university entrance exams after officials took the unprecedented step on Friday of asking for the invalidation of a question posed in a history paper a day earlier.

How a Hong Kong history exam question stirred up controversy

Samuel Yung Wing-ki, HKEAA’s chairman, told the Post on Saturday that “detailed discussions” were required and a decision would not be reached very quickly on whether to strike out the question, which asked candidates if Japan “did more good than harm to China” in the early 20th century.

A source close to Lo said the resignations of the two members of HKEAA staff were effective from August 16, but refused to comment on the nature of their departure, including whether they were asked to leave by top management.

Lo is a senior manager of assessment development, working in a division responsible for the development of question papers on Diploma of Secondary Education exams and assessments, as well as marking scripts and grading candidate performance.

He and the more junior colleague worked on liberal studies, another controversial subject in the city. An HKEAA spokesman said it would not comment on personnel changes.

Pro-Beijing media outlets reported on Wednesday – the day before the controversial DSE exam – that two authority employees had made inappropriate comments on social media.

Lo was one of those mentioned and reportedly published posts calling for city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to step down, as well as other material relating to the anti-government protests sparked last June in Hong Kong by the now-withdrawn extradition bill.

The other HKEAA employee referred to in those media reports was on the committee drawing up the history exam at the centre of the row.

The latter was said to have posted in Chinese: “If there was no Japanese occupation, would there be a new China? Have you forgotten your origin?”

Japanese troops celebrate the fall of Nanking in 1937. Photo: Handout

The comment referred to a news report that a man was arrested in mainland China for wearing a Japanese army uniform to his wedding.

The media reports suggested the post implied that the Japanese invasion of China helped pave the way for the Chinese Communist Party’s rise to power.

At the centre of the exam row was a compulsory question in a history paper of the DSE on Thursday, which asked the 5,200 candidates if they agreed that Japan “did more good than harm to China” between 1900 and 1945, with reference to two excerpts of reading material and their own knowledge.

Education minister Kevin Yeung Yun-hung on Friday condemned the reference materials as biased and the question as leading, saying “there is no room for discussion” on what the answer should be: that “Japan only did harm but no good” from its invasion of China.

Hong Kong exams body blasted over ‘biased’ Japanese history question

The paper sparked outrage among pro-establishment figures in Hong Kong and internet users on the mainland who described the question as blatantly ignoring the suffering of the Chinese people during the eight-year occupation between 1937 and 1945.

The bureau first lashed out on Thursday evening at the HKEAA for setting the question, an hour after the Office of the Commissioner of the Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong threw its weight behind criticism levelled by some pro-Beijing figures.

State news agency Xinhua slammed the question as “poisonous” in a commentary warning that the “rage of all Chinese sons and daughters would not be able to be settled” if it was not removed.

Concern groups, including those made up of students, teachers and members of political party Demosisto, have launched a petition opposing the bureau’s “political interference”.

As of Saturday night, more than 54,000 had signed the petition, including 1,467 listing themselves as candidates sitting the history exam, 440 identifying as history teachers and more than 9,700 parents.

“Whether an exam question is appropriate should not be decided based on the feelings of some people, but should be left to the education industry to judge,” the petition wrote, adding that a well-established professional mechanism for setting exam questions was recognised by universities, secondary schools and the international community.

The Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority says it will meet government officials to run through how it sets exam questions. Photo: May Tse

Expressing worries that invalidating the question would affect the exam’s coherence, fairness and international accreditation, the petition called on HKEAA to safeguard the credibility of the exam and “say no to political interference”.

“The move of the Education Bureau has overridden professionalism and interests of students with politics,” it wrote, demanding Yeung to withdraw his remarks.

One of the petition’s initiators, Issac Cheng Ka-long, the vice-chairman of Demosisto, said activists had been mulling a plan to launch a judicial review should the HKEAA invalidate the exam question.

“We are discussing with our legal team and actively considering taking legal action,” Cheng said. “We have reached some affected DSE students and see who would like to apply for the review.”

Beijing blasts ‘poisonous’ question in Hong Kong history exam

He said the legal grounds would relate to the bureau overriding the independent examination authority and the resultant loss to students of the department’s misconduct.

Others behind the petition are the Academic Staff Association of The Education University of Hong Kong, Progressive Teachers' Alliance, and student groups formed online from the anti-government movement that grew out of opposition to the extradition bill.

HKEAA chairman Yung, a businessman who is also a member of the national advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, said the body would meet with officials on Monday to discuss issues relating to the mechanism for setting questions.

On whether the exam authority felt any pressure to comply with the government’s request, Yung said on Saturday: “It is not up to one person, but the whole council. A detailed discussion is needed … and a decision is not expected to be released very quickly.”

Samuel Yung, chairman of Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

A spokesman for HKEAA, which is an independent and self-funded statutory body, said its governing council would not hold any meetings over the weekend.

The council comprises education officials and independent members, including educators appointed by Hong Kong’s chief executive.

Teddy Tang Chun-keung, chairman of the Hong Kong Association of the Heads of Secondary Schools, said he did not know the reason for Lo's resignation but predicted more departures.

“Some will find it more difficult to sustain their professionalism under this environment, so will quit,” he said.

“I am worried that some youngsters interested in teaching will refrain from joining the profession too.

“It is getting more obvious that there are political taboos. But we are uncertain of the scope.”

While Tang said the wording of the exam question was not ideal he would seek a meeting with the bureau to express his concerns over its intervention.

Outrage over Hong Kong history exam paper just the tip of the iceberg

Wong Kwan-yu from the pro-Beijing Federation of Education Workers, meanwhile, said he would not speculate on the reasons for Lo's resignation, adding he hoped a personnel change would revitalise liberal studies, which had “stirred up disputes in the community”.

On Saturday morning, a DSE student told a radio programme she was opposed to scrapping the question.

“I think I have answered quite well on this question. A sudden cancellation would be unfair to me,” she said.

“I have spent 20 minutes on this question, and less time on other questions.”

University of Hong Kong legal scholar Eric Cheung Tat-ming said there were grounds for students to file a judicial review if the invalidation went ahead.

“That would be an absurd and unprecedented circumstance, and students who are directly affected by the change have grounds to file a judicial review,” he said, adding in that scenario the judge would look at the HKEAA’s decision-making process as well as the reasons behind reaching its conclusion.

Barrister Randy Shek Shu-ming said whether the court accepted the application was based on any reasonable arguments and procedural impropriety.

“It is too early to say whether the decision itself has infringed academic freedom and free speech at this stage,” he said.

The Post has contacted the Education Bureau for comment on the petition.

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Exam body employees quit amid test row