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'No room for debate or compromise' as Hong Kong introduces sweeping national security rules for schools

Hong Kong has introduced sweeping new restrictions in schools, months after the Beijing government imposed a new national security law giving authorities wide-ranging powers to crack down on vaguely defined political crimes. CNN's Kristie Lu Stout reports.

Posted: Feb 5, 2021 11:00 PM
Updated: Feb 5, 2021 11:01 PM

Hong Kong has introduced sweeping new restrictions for how schools operate, months after the Beijing government imposed a new national security law giving authorities wide-ranging powers to crack down on vaguely defined political crimes.

For years, parents and students in the semi-autonomous city have feared a shift toward China-style "patriotic education," with a previous attempt to introduce such a curriculum defeated by mass protests in 2012. The new rules, coming in the wake of both the new security law and a crackdown on the city's opposition movement, go far beyond what was previously mooted.

In a circular issued to schools Thursday, the city's Education Bureau (EDB) said that "as far as national security is concerned, there is no room for debate or compromise."

A spokesman for the bureau said that in accordance with the national security law, "preventive efforts should be accorded priority in order to minimize the need for suppression and punishment."

"Schools have a significant role to play" in this, he added.

Speaking at a news conference Thursday, Ip Kin-yuen, a former lawmaker and vice chairman of the Professional Teachers' Union, criticized the government for announcing the new policies without consulting teachers and parents.

"There is a lot of sensitivity and unpredictability when it comes to national security law education," he said. "It will bring about huge pressure and anxiety among principals and teachers."

New rules

The new policies are outlined in a series of circulars seen by CNN, as well as new teaching materials, including videos, picture books, and graphics, with cartoon Chinese soldiers and local police officers helping students understand their "responsibilities" under the security law.

They go into granular detail over how national security issues should be taught across a range of subjects, from general studies and history to biology and music, as well as how administrators and teachers should handle discipline issues and failure to respect the new guidelines.

Both teachers and students who contravene the rules face potential censure, with administrators advised to involve the police in the event of "serious" offenses, while books and other materials deemed to be contrary to national security are to be removed from school grounds, though little precise guidance is offered for what materials are covered.

"If an employee is found to have committed any act of disrespecting the country, the school should give appropriate advice or warning, and pay attention to this employee's future performance accordingly," the rules state.

Students, both university and high school, were at the forefront of anti-government, pro-democracy protests which rocked Hong Kong for much of 2019. During the unrest and in the run-up to the national security law being introduced, many pro-government figures blamed the city's liberal education curriculum, as well as teachers, for supposedly radicalizing the city's young people.

"We lost two generations, we lost them through the schools," a top adviser to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam told CNN at the height of the unrest.

"The fundamental problem is that you have a whole generation of young people who are not just dead against, but actually hate China," the aide said, on the condition on anonymity. "How are you going to have 'one country, two systems' work if you have a whole generation hating that country?"

While members of the city's democratic opposition have dismissed these claims, pointing out that many of them did not receive the supposedly radical lessons, which were only introduced in 2009, this has not stopped the push to "reform" Hong Kong's education system.

In her annual policy address last November, Lam, the city's Beijing-appointed leader, said the 2019 protests had "led many to question again the effectiveness of Hong Kong's education."

"We cannot bear to see that with the infiltration of politics into school campuses, students are drawn into political turbulence or even misled to engage in illegal and violent acts, for which they have to take legal responsibilities that will impact on their lives," Lam said, adding it was "the shared responsibility of the government, society, education sector and parents to find a way to protect our students."

Political controls

Under the new guidelines, inculcation of the tenets of national security will start early.

Kindergartens -- both private and public -- will be expected to instill in their students a greater knowledge of "Chinese history, Chinese culture, and moral education," which the guidelines say will "gradually build up students' identity as a Chinese and thus lay the foundation for national security education."

Beginning at the age of 6, all students in Hong Kong will receive new lessons aimed at helping them "understand the country's history and development, the importance of national security, the national flag, national emblem and national anthem."

Primary school students will be instructed in singing the national anthem and raising the flag, while older children will discuss the rationale behind the law itself, and the importance of institutions such as the People's Liberation Army.

Nor are international schools -- which are popular among both foreign residents and wealthier locals -- exempt from the new guidelines.

While private educational institutions are not directly under the control of the EDB, the rules issued Thursday state that international and private schools "have the responsibility to help their students (regardless of their ethnicity and nationality) acquire a correct and objective understanding ... of the concept of national security and the National Security Law, as well as the duty to cultivate a law-abiding spirit among their students."

Hong Kong's education system is already notoriously intense for students, while the city's international schools command high fees and are tough to gain admission to, meaning the new rules might be the final straw for some parents who were already considering moving abroad.

This week, the United Kingdom launched its resettlement program for holders of British Nationals (Overseas) passports, of which there are an estimated 3 million in Hong Kong. The Chinese government has reacted angrily to the plan and said it will no longer recognize BN(O) documents, but still an estimated 300,000 people are expected to relocate to the UK.

Others are moving to Canada and Australia, where many Hong Kongers hold dual residency, while several prominent activists and politicians have sought asylum in the UK, Germany and the United States.

"The (exodus) is already happening, especially for families with small kids," opposition lawmaker Lester Shum said last year. "If I put myself in their shoes, I can understand the fear and the worry that they have about the next generation. Children cannot reasonably have bright prospects or a bright future in Hong Kong, and so in order to protect that ... it's understandable why people want to leave."

Concerns for teachers

For school employees, both administrators and teachers, the new rules open up the concerning possibility of being reported by students for contravening national security, something that could result in them losing their jobs or, in extreme incidences, being arrested.

Last year, the city's former leader, CY Leung, launched a campaign to name and shame teachers he said had been involved in the 2019 protests, posting their personal details on his Facebook page and calling for them to be fired.

In mainland China, such reporting of teachers who go against the Party line is relatively routine, both on high school and university campuses, and regular campaigns are conducted to ensure educators' ideological purity, while "student information officers" compile dossiers on teachers deemed to be insufficiently patriotic.

While for many older Chinese these practices have worrying echoes of the Cultural Revolution, in which teenage Red Guards frequently abused and even murdered teachers, such campaigns have ramped up under Chinese President Xi Jinping.

On Thursday, China's government issued new guidelines for "strengthening the work of the Chinese Young Pioneers," (CYP) a Communist Party youth wing which "serves as a school for children to learn about socialism with Chinese characteristics and communism."

"The guideline stressed upholding the Party's leadership over the CYP work, and following the fundamental task of nurturing capable young people who are well-prepared to join the communist cause," according to state news agency Xinhua.

The Young Pioneers operate similarly to the Scouts, but with a distinctly political bent, wearing a uniform red scarf tied around their necks. Per the new guidelines, they will be encouraged to engage more with schools and youth groups in Hong Kong and Macao, so as to enhance the "national, ethnic and cultural identity" of young people in these territories.

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