Fight for an outpost of liberty

June 1, 2007

Two leading scholars are battling with the Hong Kong Government to maintainacademic freedom. Edward Vickers reports

These days, mainland China has become an object of general fascination. Staggering growth statistics mesmerise the onlooking world, and British universities have been among those scrambling to secure students and institutional partnerships.

Amid this sometimes unseemly rush to curry favour on the mainland, the significance and distinctiveness of Hong Kong are increasingly forgotten or overlooked. Ten years after its return to China, there appears to be a disturbing cynicism regarding Hong Kong's post-handover fate.

In recent months, Hong Kong has been in the throes of a major scandal relating to academic freedom (of which more below), but apart from one article in The Times Higher ("Inquiry into academic freedom", March 9), no British newspaper has deemed this worthy of coverage. The assumption would seem to be that because Hong Kong is now part of China and China does not have academic freedom, threats to academic freedom in Hong Kong are not news.

The danger is that this belief will turn out to be self-fulfilling. If the international community accepts that academic freedom is doomed in "China's Hong Kong" and therefore voices no protest when the authorities there appear to be undermining it, then the latter will do so with ever greater abandon. On the other hand, if international observers vocally express outrage at such interference, then officials might think twice.

International image matters hugely in a place that bills itself as "Asia's World City".

So what have the past ten years meant for education in Hong Kong? The new administration in 1997 professed to place education at the heart of its governing programme. However, Hong Kong's transition from British to Chinese sovereignty presented the authorities in the new "Special Administrative Region" with a particularly complex set of education policy challenges. Many of the problems bequeathed by the outgoing British colonial administration - for example, the issue of which language (English or Cantonese Chinese) should be used as the main medium of instruction in local schools - had been hotly debated by local educators and policymakers for years.

The British Hong Kong Government lacked the legitimacy, the political capital or simply the stamina and will to tackle such problems head on.

Newly independent former colonies have typically pursued energetic programmes of nation-building through education. Moreover, post-independence administrations tend to enjoy the kind of popular legitimacy lacked by their colonial predecessors - at least initially - and thus have the political wherewithal to pursue controversial reforms.

But Hong Kong was not a typical colony, nor has its post-colonial fate been that of most other colonies: political independence. By 1997, Hong Kong's per capita gross domestic product was already significantly higher than that of the UK. This was a sophisticated, globalised metropolis with a strong sense of its own identity, not an economically struggling, politically fragmented basket-case. Nonetheless, Britain and China together decreed that Hong Kong's fate was to be re-absorption into China under the "one country, two systems" model conceived by the senior Chinese leader Deng Xiao-ping.

"One country, two systems" was a vague concept open to a variety of interpretations, some relatively liberal. However, the limitations reimposed on popular political accountability since 1997 have meant that local officials often feel compelled to look "upwards" to Beijing for political direction, as well as, or rather than, "downwards" to Hongkongers themselves. Moreover, in the absence of democracy, the constituency that carries by far the most influence both locally and in Beijing is that of the business elite, who in recent years have built up huge investments on the Chinese mainland.

Beijing views Hong Kong as a key entrepot, a useful base for mainland companies and a funnel for inward investment into China. However, the region is also seen as a politically suspect haven for subversives of all descriptions - both home-grown and "foreign". And while surveys consistently show that most Hongkongers see themselves as "Hongkongese"

first and "Chinese" second, mainland commentators utterly reject the legitimacy of any meaningful sense of local identity. Instead, they seek to promote the kind of uncritical, monolithic, state-centred patriotism that has become the core of post-Tiananmen official ideology on the mainland.

Since 1997, the drive for educational reform has thus involved the pursuit of conflicting objectives. Concern to preserve Hong Kong's competitiveness in the era of "the global knowledge economy" is reflected in talk of improving "quality", promoting critical thinking and fostering creativity.

On the other hand, Beijing's political objectives dictate an official drive to promote uncritical "one China" patriotism. This tension has been most apparent with respect to the curricula for school subjects such as history.

Thus textbooks fail to mention that people were killed in the clampdown after the 1989 Tiananmen "incident" and the massive impact this had on Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, the entire structure of the local education system is being reformed -from an English model featuring two-year A-level courses followed by three-year basic degrees to the Chinese model of four-year basic degrees, with senior secondary schooling shortened by one year.

Such a structural upheaval involves huge costs, but by comparison with other developed Asian states (Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore), Hong Kong's schools remain under-resourced. Despite a declining student population, some primary schools still share premises (with morning and afternoon sessions), while class sizes in secondary schools are typically in excess of 40. But the Government has pinpointed teacher "quality" as the key problem with school performance. Increasingly overworked and demoralised teachers have been treated like delinquent schoolchildren in need of remedial tuition and obliged to undertake time-consuming and generally pointless continuing professional development courses.

Meanwhile, calls by business leaders for an enhanced supply of elite "talent" have prompted the Government to sanction a growth in the private school sector while allowing many top government schools to operate with enhanced independence. Local universities are opening their doors to more and more mainland students, and many top jobs in Hong Kong business and the professions (and increasingly in academia, too) are going to graduates from elite mainland universities. Mainlanders are also overwhelmingly the main beneficiaries of the generous stipends paid to full-time postgraduate students at local universities.

Some of the most vocal critics of government education policy in recent years have been academics based at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.

The HKIEd was formed out of a number of teacher-training colleges in the mid-1990s with a mission to operate as an autonomous tertiary institution, training a more professional local teaching workforce and conducting research on all aspects of education.

However, particularly since the appointment in 2002 of Arthur Li Kwok-Cheung as Education Minister, the Government has sought to curtail the autonomy of the HKIEd. Li, formerly vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has vigorously pressed for a merger between the institute and his former university. This has been resisted by the vast majority of staff and students at the HKIEd, led by its popular president, Paul Morris. In January, the Government-appointed council of the institute informed Morris that his contract would not be renewed when it expires this September.

Following this announcement, Morris's deputy, Bernard Luk Hung-Kay, went public with claims that a senior official at the education ministry, the Education and Manpower Bureau (EMB), had pressured Morris to sack four academics who had criticised government education policy. Rumours of similar bullying and intimidation of university and school management by EMB officials have been rife for years, but Luk was the first to make specific and public allegations. Hong Kong's Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-Kuen, who heads the Government, felt compelled to establish a public inquiry.

This inquiry, which runs until mid-June, has served as a rallying point for local academics and teachers alarmed by the drift of government policy.

Martin Lee, Hong Kong's most prominent pro-democracy politician and a top barrister, is representing Morris and Luk. The inquiry might be seen as signifying a serious intent on the part of Government to protect academic freedom.

However, a pro-establishment judge, Justice Woo, was originally appointed to head the inquiry until the revelation of his close working relationship with one of the accused officials forced his resignation. And local press reports have mocked the apparent inability of government witnesses to recall key conversations and incidents. Scandalously, while witnesses opposing Morris and Luk are having their legal expenses paid by the Government or by their institutions, the two academics will have to pay their own legal bill - estimated at almost £300,000.

The eyes of the academic world should be keenly focused on the outcome of this inquiry. More is at stake here than the careers of two academics. Hong Kong remains an outpost of relative freedom on the periphery of a China that is anything but free. For the sake of Hong Kong's people, but also for our sake and ultimately that of China too, it is important that should remain so - but for that to happen, we must remind Hong Kong's Government that the world is watching.

Edward Vickers is senior lecturer in comparative education at the Institute of Education, University of London, and author of In Search of an Identity: The Politics of History as a School Subject in Hong Kong , 1960s-2005 (Comparative Education Research Centre, 2005).

Those interested in contributing to the legal expenses of Morris and Luk, or in reading more about the inquiry, can visit www.commissionofinquiry.gov.hk  and www.academic-freedom.com.hk

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