Occupy Central leader Benny Tai stands in front of a vintage double-deck bus used as a polling center for voting in Hong Kong…
Occupy Central leader Benny Tai stands in front of a vintage double-deck bus used as a polling center for voting in Hong Kong Saturday, July 11, 2020, in an unofficial “primary” for pro-democracy candidates ahead of legislative elections in September.

When lecturer Shiu Ka-Chun received a letter from his university last week, he was shocked to find that he had been effectively fired.     

Shiu, also a legislator, has taught social work at the Baptist University of Hong Kong for 11 years, where his teaching had been consistently rated as excellent. He was jailed last year for “inciting public nuisance” in the 2014 civil disobedience Occupy Central movement and after his release, he was removed from teaching duties pending disciplinary proceedings linked to his conviction. 

Shiu said his effective dismissal amounted to “political persecution” but the university gave him no explanation.  He said he felt “angry, upset and insulted.”  The university declined to comment on his case.   

Law professor Benny Tai, one of the founders of the 2014 occupy movement jailed last year on public nuisance charges for his role, was also fired by the University of Hong Kong last week. 

Tai lamented that academics in Hong Kong are “no longer free to make controversial statements about politically or socially controversial matters.”   

Shui and Tai’s dismissals occurred the same week as the arrests of four students on national security charges, the disqualification of 12 pro-democracy legislative candidates and news of Hong Kong police issuing arrest warrants for six Hong Kong activists abroad.  

The incidents took place within a month of the passing of a strict, broadly defined national security law that, among other things, bans acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.   

Although Tai’s dismissal was widely considered an indicator of the demise of the city’s academic freedom, China’s liaison office and the Beijing-owned press in Hong Kong triumphantly declared it as “a deed of justice” for an academic who has spread “poisonous” political thinking among youngsters.  The Wen Wei Po newspaper compared Tai’s dismissal to the removal of “a poisonous cancer” and portrayed Tai in a cartoon as a virus being dusted away by a broom. 

Hong Kong and Chinese officials have escalated their rhetoric on the education sector in recent months, accusing teachers of “inciting” anti-China sentiments and encouraging students to oppose the authorities, and blaming them for the mass, anti-government protests last year.  The national security law is aimed at stamping out activities like the pro-democracy protests, which turned increasingly violent as frustrations mounted.   

Hong Kong’s top leader, Carrie Lam, told a forum days after the national security law was passed last month that social movements, from the Occupy movement in 2014 to last year’s anti-government movement, indicate that “anti-China forces have infiltrated school campuses.”

Protesters walk on top of a bridge near Hong Kong Baptist University, in Hong Kong, Nov. 16, 2019. Most anti-government demonstrators abandoned their positions Saturday.

Citing statistics that some 40% of those arrested in the anti-government protests were students and 45% of them were under 18, she vowed to push national security law in schools and colleges across Hong Kong, saying the law would put education “back on the right track.” 

The national security law stipulates that the government tighten supervision of schools to “safeguard national security” and prevent terrorist activities. 

Hong Kong’s security minister, John Lee, a member of the newly formed national security committee, also told the China-owned Ta Kung Pao newspaper last week that his first priority would be to “deal with the schools” and the authorities would get rid of the “bad apples” to “rescue students from being poisoned.” 

“The national security committee… would punish public enemies severely and take preventive measures to obliterate viruses that endanger national security within one or two years,” Lee said.   

The education authorities have been putting pressure on schools and teachers to increasingly toe the government line.   

The education secretary told schools in June to discipline students or teachers who protest the national security law.  The authorities also launched new mandatory requirements for new teachers to be trained on professional conduct and national development. 

After the law passed, the education chief banned students from singing protest songs, posting political slogans or forming human chains.  He also told schools they could call the police if students showed disrespect toward the national anthem. A teacher had her contract terminated after she allowed students to sing protest songs at their music examination. 

The education bureau also told schools to review their library books to avoid falling afoul of the new law after public libraries pulled several titles by pro-democracy politicians.   

The bureau has also warned that if schools do not cooperate with the bureau’s investigation of teachers who had “conduct issues” including advocacy of their political positions, it could revoke the principals’ and teachers’ licenses. 

With some receiving warnings and under the threat of having their contracts terminated, teachers say the atmosphere has been increasingly stifling. 

A teacher who taught liberal studies -- a subject widely vilified by officials for supposedly promoting critical views of the authorities -- was given a warning by the education bureau and removed from his duties after airing anti-police brutality rhetoric online. He said he now chooses his words very carefully.   

“Self-censorship has become a common practice among many teachers,” he said. “Now, we avoid discussing politics. Every single word can be used against us.”   

Many critics say the restrictions on the freedom of thought and expression will deal a heavy blow to Hong Kong’s education. 

Kenneth Chan, political scientist at the Baptist University of Hong Kong, said the message that has been sent to academics is “behave and stay within the perimeters of the ivory tower or face the consequences of prosecution.” 

Ip Kin-yuen, a legislator for the education constituency, said teaching quality will be heavily compromised when teachers cannot air their views freely. 

“If teachers are worried about being punished for what they teach and say, the quality of education will suffer,” he said. “Just having the national security law there is enough to stifle teachers.”   

Sociology professor Chan Kin Man, who has also been jailed as a co-founder of the 2014 Occupy movement, said the new law has proven to be an effective tool for silencing free speech as it punishes non-violent acts that supposedly threaten national security.   

“This is having a huge impact on speech,” he said.