Hong Kong crackdown in China takes hold in classroom: ‘I feel like there’s a noose above my head’

Diana Wong had sent letters of encouragement decorated with animal stickers to each of her class of 11 and 12-year-olds to help them get through the endless online courses of the pandemic. But a new national security program that will take effect in Hong Kong from August has caused the elementary teacher to rethink every word she writes or the picture she shows to the class.

Teachers “fear that if a parent quotes us out of context or simply distorts a message from a single screenshot of our class that they capture,” their work, and even their freedom, could be at stake, he said. she declared. “I feel like there’s a noose above my head.”

An image from an audio storybook for young children on the National Security Law published by the Hong Kong Board of Education. The full video can be viewed below © Youtube

Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law in Hong Kong last year in the wake of the 2019 anti-government protests that rocked Chinese territory. The repression that followed the pro-democracy movement has crushed opposition in the city and many activists were imprisoned or fled abroad.

Now the government is expanding this effort in schools with a program that will require teachers to warn elementary and secondary school students against “subversion” and “foreign interference” as outlined in the national security law. International schools, attended by many expatriate children, are also affected.

The Financial Times spoke to more than a dozen teachers, parents and school administrators in Hong Kong, most of whom did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals from the government.

A National Security Education Day Thursday will promote the new education program. Families can attend open days at police and prison guard training institutes to see counter-terrorism drills and participate in virtual reality experiences. National security reflection activities were organized for kindergarten students.

Educators have warned that the new curriculum could institute widespread censorship, transforming classrooms for decades to come. Directors have already ordered libraries to eliminate the books deemed politically incorrect, and educational materials will be reviewed.

Many were already afraid before the rules were announced. Pro-Beijing politicians campaigned against teachers they accused of opposing the government. Two educators have been struck off the register and are unlikely to teach again.

Bookmarks (top) and stickers distributed to promote the Hong Kong government’s National Security Education Day on April 15

The city is home to 52 international schools, including the campuses of well-known UK private schools such as Harrow and Malvern College.

At a briefing in February, the city’s education office assured staff at international schools that they would be exempted from fully integrating the requirements of the national security curriculum. But schools will still need to educate their students about the law and make sure there are no violations on campus.

An American expat with two teenage boys said the provisions were “really worrying”, even though she believed the National Security Act was necessary “Bring peace to Hong Kong”. But, she added, the changes made her thankful that her children had foreign passports. “As scary as it sounds, when the shit hits the fan, we can go.”

Students form a human chain at school during the 2019 anti-government protests © Anthony Wallace / AFP / Getty

Beijing and local authorities view Hong Kong’s education system as one of the culprits behind the 2019 anti-government protests, claiming that young protesters were lost in the classroom. Images of high school students in uniform forming human chains outside their schools in support of frontline protesters have raised alarms in Beijing.

“The idea of ​​rejecting the state and opposing the government is ingrained in the hearts of young people these days,” Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam said in July.

This fixation on schools is not new. In 2012, Joshua wong and Agnes Chow – students at the time who became leaders of the pro-democracy movement and are now in jail – have become the public faces of a successful campaign against a previous Hong Kong government plan to introduce a national patriotic education program.

“ My Home is in China ”: Excerpts from New National Education Readers for Primary and Secondary Students in Hong Kong

‘Hong Kong regional flag and emblem’

“The red flag represents the homeland and the white bauhinia represents Hong Kong. The design implies that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China and thrives in the embrace of the homeland.

“ Founding ceremony in Tiananmen ”

“The founding of the People’s Republic of China ushered in a new era in Chinese history. China has ended the humiliating history of invasion and forced labor for over 100 years. It really has become an independent country ”.

After the latest protests, authorities have targeted an issue called liberal studies, in which students learned about current affairs, the legal system, and in some cases, the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, a student-led protest in Beijing that was violently suppressed. The massacre is generally not taught in mainland China.

The course has been replaced by a program called Citizenship and Social Development, which will focus on instilling civic values ​​in line with the Beijing agenda and include study tours to the mainland.

Guidelines released by Hong Kong’s education authorities this year described how national security should be integrated across a range of subjects from geography to biology. The government has produced videos, stickers and other materials featuring a cartoon owl to educate young children about the National Security Law.

Additional excerpts from the readers of the school “ My home is in China ”

  • About trade: “It would be cheaper to import goods from Belt and Road countries. The quality and variety will be better. ”

  • On education: “You don’t have to focus on Europe or the United States, there are a lot of good Belt and Road schools. There are more choices for studying abroad ”.

  • Travelling:Chinese passports are now going to be awesome. It will be more convenient to travel to countries along the Belt and Road.

  • On culture: ‘Are you bored of Hollywood and Disney movies or animations? There are wonderful Belt and Road films available.

An elementary school principal said he asked librarians to check all books in the school that mention China in case any of them could be misinterpreted. High schools would now be reluctant to have books on Tiananmen, for example, she said.

A number of school leaders have asked if the Education Bureau has a list of banned books, but officials said it depends on teachers’ judgment, according to the principal. “We have decided to strictly follow the textbooks in the future, as they are all controlled by the Bureau of Education,” she said. “I’m pretty confused.”

A school principal who identified herself as Ms Choi said the office asked her to provide information on teachers’ criminal records and a register of newly hired staff. The government was trying to ensure that “no one with political ideas will ever enter a school campus,” she said.

Schoolchildren wearing protective masks in Hong Kong © Roy Liu / Bloomberg

In international schools, a school board member felt that the board was ready to take a more lenient and “light” approach. The role of schools in educating the children of bankers and executives was “too important” for the city. role as financial center in the eyes of the authorities, added the person.

However, international schools have been warned of “major incidents”, such as students chanting anti-government slogans, said the board member. Hong Kong education secretary Kevin Yeung said schools that fail to report activities deemed to violate the safety law could be investigated.

Not all parents were worried about “a little Thought Xi Jinpingin schools. A parent of young children said he was not surprised that education in Chinese territory was patriotic.

A Hong Kong-based mother of two said she sent her children to boarding school in the UK, mainly because of the pandemic. However, she was also concerned that, despite government assurances to international schools, teachers would be reluctant to discuss sensitive topics, which would adversely affect the quality of education. “Without clarity. . . schools will be cautious, ”she said.

Image from an audio storybook for young children on national security published by the Hong Kong Board of Education © Youtube

Even before the new curriculum was introduced, some international schools had come under close scrutiny by pro-Beijing activists. The American International School was attacked by a pro-Beijing newspaper in August for allegedly using a map of China that did not show Taiwan and the South China Sea as Chinese territory in a Mandarin course.

The newspaper reported that the video containing the card eventually disappeared from the lesson.

The school did not respond to a request for comment.

For some parents who disagreed with the government’s line, leaving Hong Kong has become an increasingly serious possibility. “This year, the school can say that it will not follow [the security curriculum]Said Lai, an accountant with two children at an international school. “But what about next year?”

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