Letters from leaders of Hong Kong's political parties and government departments.
Back in 2015, when some parents were discussing online the pressure of study on their children, they were enthusiastically joined by tens of thousands of other parents. They pointed an accusing finger at the Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA), identifying it as the culprit responsible for endless drills of assessment questions devoid of learning purposes. Indeed, the education sector has, continuously over the years, pointed out the source of problems. The Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union (PTU) has issued quite a number of survey and investigation reports on this. However, Education Bureau (EDB) has all along refused to squarely face the issue. Even though there were outrage and joint petitions by tens of thousands of teachers and parents against Primary 3 TSA, the then Secretary for Education Eddie NG Hak-kim simply responded perfunctorily. Eventually, the only thing that emerged was a ‘pilot study’ in which 50 schools were asked to take part. The study was, through the use of euphemistic language, extended to all primary schools in Hong Kong in the following year. Whilst referred to as a study, it was actually compulsory in nature. And TSA was given a new name: Basic Competency Assessments (BCA) which does not bring about any new meaning. There was a spark of hope for our junior primary students when Carrie Lam, in her capacity as a candidate in the Chief Executive election, clearly promised in her election platform to ‘shelve Primary 3 TSA before the completion of a comprehensive review of the relevant policy’. Recently, however, there have been reports that the Government will not shelve Primary 3 TSA and that we shall see a comprehensive resumption of it. In other words, TSA is expected to come back and haunt us again! The Teachers’ Union immediately collected the views of frontline teachers through a survey, the findings of which have recently been published. I would like to share with our audiences a few salient points. Recognising the need to eliminate incentives for drills, EDB and the so-called TSA Review Committee introduced a few measures including ‘adjusting the types of questions’, ‘adjusting the level of difficulty’ and ‘adjusting the format of reporting by schools’. These are invariably changes of an inconsequential nature. Findings from the PTU survey reveal that only 10% of our primary school teachers believe that these three measures can effectively solve the problem of drills. In the past two years, EDB claims that through adjustments to the types of questions, to the level of difficulty and to the format of reporting by schools, incentives for drills have been successfully eliminated. Responses from teachers to questionnaire surveys conducted by PTU in the past two years invariably reflect the persistence of drills and supplementary classes. According to the latest survey, which was conducted even before any EDB announcements about the fate of Primary 3 TSA for the current academic year, as many as 40% of our teachers have already been preparing materials for drills and supplementary classes. This robustly refutes EDB’s claim of having successfully eliminated incentives for drills and which clearly shows that such a claim of EDB’s is nothing but nonsense bordering on ‘burying one’s head in the sand’! If EDB insists on a comprehensive resumption of Primary 3 TSA, the situation of drills will, according to 80% of our teachers, get even more serious. Isn’t the Government able to see this? Even more alarming is that as many as 90% of our teachers believe, according to the survey, that the entire process of teaching and learning (including homework and tests) in our schools have to pander to the types of questions and format of TSA. Whilst materials and activities do not necessarily bear the TSA label, the effect of TSA has already deeply permeated every single aspect of our daily teaching and learning. Having TSA drills regularly on a daily basis does not only affect the progress of teaching and the design of curricula and generate mechanical drills, but it also, more importantly, distorts the principles of education. Teachers teach to the test. Students learn for the test. As a result, students’ motivation and interest are stifled. This has an extremely grave negative impact on our education. When responding to our survey, quite a number of teachers offered comments on how TSA has affected teaching and learning and how it has hampered students’ normal process of learning. I would like to share with you two relatively short and self-contained comments. A teacher writes, ‘In my school, drills have extended down to Primary 1. On top of supplementary exercises, my school has designed, as an exercise for our young kids, a booklet on the practice of speaking. As a result, Primary 1 students are subjected to considerable academic pressure. I hope that TSA can be abolished so that our kids can once again have a splendid childhood!’ Another teacher writes, ‘For schools above basic competence, it is a waste of time to do exercises the types of which are out of tune with those of the school. Not only does this add pressure on students, it also wastes staff resources which can otherwise be better deployed. The party benefiting most from such an anomaly is the publisher. For schools below the required standard, students are not even able to handle their own curriculum. Those who are academically weak have to, for the sake of assessment, know the scope of assessment and the format of assessment. As a responsible school, it is impossible for us not to drill students with exercises.’ That normal teaching in schools is hampered by mechanical drills, that primary school kids are already subjected to examination-orientated education and that education principles are distorted are some of the chain reactions brought about by TSA. Surveys have robustly established that the core problems of TSA have not yet been solved and that teachers and parents are full of doubts and worries about a comprehensive resumption of TSA. If the Government decides on an immediate resumption of it, not only will this decision be detrimental to teachers and students, it will inevitably provoke dissatisfaction in the education sector and among the parents. I hope that Chief Executive Carrie LAM can seriously listen to the views of different stake-holders and seriously review the core problems of TSA as well as the entire culture of drills so that Hong Kong’s education can return to its proper track.
With the approval of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) last weekend, China’s national anthem law has been added to Annex III to the Basic Law, and will be enforced in Hong Kong once local legislative process is complete. Given that the last time that law added to Annex III was applied to Hong Kong through local legislation was in 1997 for the national flag and emblem laws, I think Hong Kongers are rightfully concerned about the proposed national anthem law, especially considering how times have changed since 1997. In addition, in the recently concluded 19th National Congress, Xi Jinping stressed the melding of Beijing’s “comprehensive jurisdiction” over the city with its “high degree of autonomy”, and commentaries in state media have echoed such language, calling the legislation of the national anthem law in Hong Kong as “exemplifying” this principle.
Unlike the proposed West Kowloon co-location arrangement, which clearly violates multiple statutes of the Basic Law and has no international precedent, the proposed national anthem law is in accordance with the procedure set out in Art.18 of the Basic Law, and various countries such as France and Germany have laws criminalizing the desecration of national symbols, including the national anthem. However, I do have a number of issues on the law included in Annex III, and would like to see the government take steps to alleviate these concerns, by making sure that the legislation will be in line with local legal practices and by conducting a public consultation.
As demonstrated in the recent protests by athletes during the national anthem in the United States, protest during the national anthem is not always an act of disrespect or an attack toward the people or the nation; it is also an avenue of political expression. While there are countries that criminalize the desecration of national symbols, countries such as the U.S. and Canada do not. In the U.S. legal code, there are statutes that provide guidelines on etiquette during the performance of the national anthem; there is no language that makes it a criminal offense if it were not followed. In Canada, there is no law governing the playing of the national anthem.
Yet, with the authoritarian government in China, not only is the goal to prohibit protesting against the national anthem in order to protect national dignity, but they also seek to use the national anthem to “cultivate and practice socialist core values … and urge Chinese citizens of all ethnic groups to strive for the achievement of the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” according to the official description of the law. Therefore, I hope to see that Mrs. Carrie Lam and relevant officials will protect Hong Kong’s way of life, and recognize the right to freedom of expression, which is protected in Hong Kong under Art.39 of the Basic Law and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and leave space for limited political expression, such as not criminalizing the act of not standing in attention during the performance of the national anthem.
In fact, the above recommendation is not without history or support. During the local legislation process for the National Flag and National Emblem Ordinance back in 1997, various clauses were removed from the mainland law, the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the National Flag. Article 1 in the Chinese law stipulates that the law is enacted “with a view to defending the dignity of the National Flag, enhancing citizens' consciousness of the State and promoting the spirit of patriotism.” This clause is not seen in the Hong Kong legislation. Article 13 in the mainland law requires people present at a flag-hoisting ceremony to face and stand at attention to salute the flag, and that secondary schools and primary schools are required to hold a flag-hoisting ceremony once a week; this clause is not seen in the Hong Kong law. Article 19, which orders the punishment for desecrating the flag, includes the clause for a 15 days administrative detention in accordance with mainland public security regulations; once again this is removed in the Hong Kong version.
Similar clauses, which go against the legal practice of Hong Kong, are also present in the Chinese national anthem law in Articles 1, 7, 11 and 15. It is the responsibility of the Hong Kong government to ensure that these contentious clauses are removed from the local legislation. The fact that the local anthem ordinance does not require people to stand in attention to the flag makes it possible for limited political expression, such as in 2014, when Scholarism protested against the Chinese government during the annual flag-raising ceremony by solemnly standing with their backs toward the flag. However, recent comments by mainland officials have cast doubt on whether the Hong Kong government can and will follow the norm set during the flag and emblem law. Most notably, Basic Law Committee chairman Li Fei has reportedly said that requiring people to stand in attention when the national anthem is performed, and the compulsory education on national anthem in middle and primary schools, are seen as two of the five “core elements” of applying the national anthem law in Hong Kong. I sincerely hope that these are merely isolated comments, and will not guide the legislation of the law locally.
Moreover, the government needs to be particularly careful with the national anthem law since it will be much more intrusive to the daily lives of Hong Kongers. There are many more opportunities for individuals to potentially be in violation of the national anthem law. While the criminal offense for desecrating the national flag requires physically manipulating the national flag, desecrating the national anthem does not. The wording of Article 15 of the Chinese law states that any act that is considered to be “insulting the national anthem” is considered a criminal offense. There is no exhaustive definition of what is considered “insulting the national anthem,” and if such wording is kept in the local legislation, it will be up to the courts to decide. One can avoid being subjected to the national flag law simply by not handling the flag, but with the national anthem being played during sporting events and even weekly horse races, many people will be subjected to the parameters of the law, willingly or not. On this basis, I would like to call for the government to not only consult the relevant Legislative Council committees, but to also conduct a public consultation, especially targeting people who intend to attend events where the anthem is played.
In a recent interview on RTHK, Mrs. Carrie Lam lamented that the start of her chief executive term has been mired in “fundamentally contentious” issues, such as the disqualification of legislators and the West Kowloon co-location issue, and that it is difficult to improve the current political climate no matter how many olive branches that she extends toward the pan-democratic side. I believe this is one such opportunity where she could extend an olive branch that is meaningful and relevant. Delaying the application of the national anthem law by a few months to conduct a public consultation in order to ensure that the law will conform to local legal practices is not an unreasonable request. It will also show to Hong Kong people that her government will not simply execute the political agenda of the central government as quickly as possible, but instead will try to do it in a way that takes into account the concerns of Hong Kongers.