Leo is on the frontline of an ideological battle with Beijing for control of the territory’s education system.
Since the Hong Kong government began cracking down on education in the Asian financial hub this year, the Hong Kong teacher said a climate of fear and suspicion has gripped his secondary school.
“I have had to stop teaching reality as I know it to avoid violating the rules,” said Leo, who teaches liberal studies, a course designed to foster critical thinking among students. “If they [students] think too independently and . . . in a way that is a ‘problem’ [for the authorities] . . . then I am to blame,” he said, declining to disclose his full name for fear of retaliation.
In response to anti-government protests over the past 18 months, in which school-age students played a significant role, Beijing has tightened its grip over the city’s educational institutions with the passage of a tough national security law in June. The Hong Kong government is investigating hundreds of teachers for allegedly radicalising their pupils.
Why do our kindergartens, primary and secondary schools have teachers who bully the children of police in classrooms, spread hateful ideas and publicly express malice?
This week, it struck one primary school teacher off the register — rendering the person unemployable — allegedly for discussing an illegal pro-independence political party in the classroom.
Last month, a high school student was suspended for displaying a protest-related slogan in an online class.
Pro-Beijing politicians have targeted “liberal studies” in particular. The subject aims to better prepare students in late high school for the modern workforce by teaching them to think for themselves, especially about current affairs.
“Targeting liberal studies is scapegoating,” said Victoria Hui, an associate professor for politics at the University of Notre Dame in the US. She said the authorities were looking for an excuse to explain why young people had turned against the government.
Hong Kong’s government made liberal studies compulsory in 2009 with the slogan: “It benefits you for life.” But pro-Beijing figures quickly grew concerned that the subject, with modules such as Hong Kong Today and Modern China, covered areas the Communist party considered taboo.
Most schools openly discussed events such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, making Hong Kong students the only pupils in China permitted to examine the incident.
A study commissioned by the government’s Central Policy Unit in 2016 concluded that liberal studies had minimal influence on students’ civic and political opinions. But many students said the subject had stimulated their interest in social and political issues.
“I learnt [from liberal studies] how bad the Communist party could be,” said Bosco, a high school student who helped organise some of last year’s protests. Liberal studies had taught him “the ugly side” of China, he added.
For the Hong Kong government, the last straw was the large number of pupils participating in the protests. About 17 per cent of the nearly 10,000 protesters arrested were younger than 18, police said. Since the protests began, officials have investigated more than 200 teachers for alleged violations and issued more than 30 reprimands and warnings.
“Why do our kindergartens, primary and secondary schools have teachers who bully the children of police in classrooms, spread hateful ideas and publicly express malice towards the police on social media,” said CY Leung, former Hong Kong chief executive, on Facebook.
Mr Leung has called for the Education Bureau to publish the names of teachers who have been disciplined over the protests and has offered a HK$100,000 ($13,000) reward to anyone giving information on those spreading “political propaganda” to students.
Apart from targeting teachers, the government has also urged publishers to voluntarily rewrite liberal studies textbooks. Publishers have dropped references to Hong Kong’s observance of “the separation of powers”, once considered a hallmark of the city’s common law legal system, and removed photos of its 2014 pro-democracy “Umbrella Movement”.
The new textbooks also play down China’s pollution problem and issues with workers’ rights, according to local media and Education Breakthrough, an advocacy group. A line critical of China’s rubber-stamp parliament was removed from new versions of the textbooks, too.
The pro-democracy Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union criticised the edits as “political censorship”.
But Lawrence Tang, of the pro-establishment Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers, said liberal studies had focused too much on “critical thinking” and missed out on “national identity and patriotism”.
The government seems poised to impose even tighter restrictions. A special task force appointed to review the liberal studies curriculum recommended last month that the authorities conduct compulsory screening of all textbooks and retrain teachers.
On Tuesday, chief executive Carrie Lam said if teachers were spreading “wrong messages to promote misunderstanding about the nation . . . then that becomes a very serious matter”.
The government campaign has had a chilling effect on academic freedom in Hong Kong’s education system, according to teachers and students.
Tin Fong-chak, who has taught liberal studies for 10 years, said some of his colleagues had stopped using their own teaching materials and were restricting themselves to official textbooks to avoid trouble.
Even battle-hardened student protesters were censoring their views at school to avoid being given a fail mark.
Moke Cheung, a form-five student who participated in last year’s protests, said: “I am worried about my grades if I write something the teacher disapproves of.”