For thousands of university professors and teachers in Hong Kong, the coming weeks will be a nervous time as they prepare for a new academic year.
In just a month from now, the city’s universities, schools and even kindergartens will come under unprecedented scrutiny as they resume classes for the first time after the National Security Law passed in July, amid calls for teachers’ “bad apples” to be purged.
Teachers and schools have been the target of scathing attacks from government officials and the pro-establishment camp since the anti-government protest movement rocked Hong Kong a year ago. In language reminiscent of the Chinese Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, professors and teachers have been widely accused of “poisoning” young minds with an allegedly heretical and radical agenda, and of producing a younger generation opposed to the authorities. .
Just last week, two academics active in politics were fired. This took place the same week as the arrest of four student activists on national security grounds and the disqualification of 12 pro-democracy candidates in the parliamentary elections.
Benny Tai, a law professor and one of the founders of the 2014 “umbrella” occupation movement, widely vilified in the Chinese state press, was sacked Tuesday by the University of Hong Kong. Tai was jailed last year on public nuisance charges for leading the civil disobedience movement.
The Chinese liaison office hailed his dismissal as “an act of justice” and accused him of “inciting” the students. China-owned Wen Wei Po said it was a long-awaited “cancer cure” for the university.
Tai said his dismissal “marked the end of academic freedom in Hong Kong” and that he was “heartbroken to witness the demise of my beloved university”.
Shiu Ka-chun, a pro-democracy lawmaker and senior lecturer in social work who taught at Hong Kong Baptist University for 11 years, said he was “shocked” by his employer’s refusal to renew his contract.
Shiu, also jailed last year for “inciting public nuisance” during the occupation protests, was dismissed from his teaching job in January as the university launched disciplinary proceedings related to his conviction.
“They are settling scores with people who participated in the Occupy movement, and are suing us under the law and our careers,” he said. Baptist University declined to comment on his case.
Hong Kong Security Chief John Lee has vowed to get rid of the education sector “bad apples” responsible for poisoning Hong Kong youth in an interview published in Chinese newspaper Ta Kung Pao on Thursday. .
Lee said authorities will “seriously punish public enemies” and aim to eradicate “the virus that endangers national security” within two years. The National Security Law obliges the government to strengthen oversight of schools and universities.
Lee, a member of the national security committee, said his first priority would be to “take care of the schools,” citing statistics that around 40% of those arrested during the anti-government protests were students and more than 100 were teachers.
In recent months, the Education Office has indeed taken a series of measures to strengthen its supervision of schools, teachers and students.
In June, the education secretary called on schools to discipline students or teachers who protested against Beijing’s imposition of the National Security Law. At around the same time, the bureau said new teachers must complete a mandatory professional conduct and national development training program.
The office banned students from shouting political slogans and singing protest songs at school. The bureau chief also told schools they could call the police if students disrespect the national anthem. A music teacher who allowed his students to sing a protest song on their music exam also had his contract terminated.
Shortly after public libraries removed several books from pro-democracy figures, the bureau reportedly asked schools to review their library books to comply with the new law, which prohibits acts of secession, subversion, terrorism. and collusion with foreign forces.
For teachers who have “conduct problems” such as those who have defended their political positions, if schools do not cooperate with the bureau’s investigation, it could even revoke the principal’s and teachers’ licenses.
Teachers and professors who spoke to the Guardian compared the bullying they face to that of the Cultural Revolution – the tumultuous political movement in China that targeted intellectuals and other privileged classes.
Patrick Mo, a teacher who received a warning from the Education Bureau following a comment on his social media, said: “It’s like being in the Cultural Revolution – every word you say can be used against you… problem then you self-censor.
A history teacher who posted comments online criticizing police brutality during last year’s protest has found himself censored by police unions and education authorities. He felt intimidated by the scathing comments from the pro-Beijing press and groups protesting outside his school door. He kept his job but was not allowed to teach liberal studies, a subject which has been widely accused of “corrupting young minds”.
“I have to be careful with every word I say now,” he said. “We no longer dare discuss protests and political issues.”
After the passage of the National Security Law, some academics were also urged to avoid politically sensitive content in their classrooms.
Critics said attacks on academics and outspoken teachers over their political stance did not bode well for academic freedom in Hong Kong.
Shiu said that academic institutions can only be truly great if academics have freedom of speech and thought.
“You can’t do research in a bird cage,” he says. “It’s a terrible education for our young people to be aware of the red lines and the no-go zones and then they have to follow the line.
Professor Chan Kin-man, co-founder of the 2014 movement who was released from prison earlier this year, said Chinese authorities intend to launch a “thought reform” program, as have political movements. who have targeted intellectuals over the past decades.
“For questions involving China, there will be standard answers that are pro-regime… and that strengthen the one-party regime,” the sociologist said. “Hong Kong will enter an anti-intellectual era where no independent thought is allowed. “