Remarks by Chen Zuoer, chairman of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, at a discussion forum on Hong Kong education and the youth last week once again raised grave public concern over the future of rule of law and constitutional status.
Chen not only criticized the young people of Hong Kong for how they behaved during the Umbrella Movement but also lambasted the Education Bureau, saying the secretary of education and other senior education officials must come under the joint oversight of the central authorities and the Hong Kong public.
He went on to argue that the secretary of education and the authorities must provide “correct guidance” to education foundations, consultation organizations and all education workers in Hong Kong on how to nurture “qualified inheritors of citizenship”.
As we all know, at present, the political reform process in Hong Kong is at a stalemate and members of the public, plagued by distress and misgivings, are so mentally fragile they are vulnerable to any sort of provocative remarks by key figures from Beijing.
Chen was a representative of the central government during the Sino-British talks in the 1980s and a former deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office.
He is in charge of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a high-level think tank on Hong Kong affairs directly under the State Council.
Therefore, his word carries weight. His remarks are often regarded as representing the opinions of the incumbent leaders.
For this reason, it is not surprising that his recent remarks have once again caused such major repercussions and speculation among Hong Kong people who are already worried that Beijing might be backtracking on its guarantees of a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong.
Chen’s notion of “oversight” is probably based on Article 48 of the Basic Law which stipulates that the power of appointing chief officials of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) rests with the central authorities, hence the power of oversight as well.
However, Articles 136 and 137 state that the HKSAR government can formulate its own education policy “on the basis of the previous education system”, which means it should fall within the scope of the promised autonomy.
Besides, Article 43 only specifies that the chief executive is directly accountable to the central authorities but not his or her cabinet.
Imagine if the heads of our 12 policy bureaus are all under the direct supervision of Beijing. Doesn’t that mean the central government is acting against the principle of “high degree of autonomy” promised by the Basic Law?
What is more, apart from the secretary of education, the rest of our chief officials might feel pressured by what Chen said. They might find themselves walking on thin ice whenever they have to make important decisions because they know Beijing is constantly looking over their shoulders.
If this scenario happens, it would spell the end of “one country, two systems”.
Chen also sparked worries over academic freedom when he said the government must provide “correct guidance” to school foundations.
At present, 90 percent of public schools in Hong Kong are run either by religious groups or charity organizations. Any political interference in these organizations will no doubt take its toll on schools and students.
In fact, there are clear provisions that govern the relationship between the Education Bureau and education foundations.
Article 13 of the Basic Law guarantees academic freedom and self-determination of organizations that run schools.
In reality, schools and the organizations that operate them are not only accountable to the Education Bureau but also to students and their parents. Teachers also play an indispensable role in managing schools in accordance with their professional standards.
The principles of “one country, two systems”, “high degree of autonomy” and “Hong Kong people running Hong Kong” promised in the Basic Law are the three pillars that guarantee the continued prosperity of Hong Kong and set the tone for relations between the central authorities and the HKSAR.
In recent years, both the Beijing and HKSAR governments have repeatedly stressed that they are “acting according to the law”.
However, what is actually happening is that the central government is gradually stepping up interference in Hong Kong affairs and the HKSAR government has failed to defend “one country, two systems”.
To me, Chen’s remarks sound like a warning that Beijing is going to further escalate its interference in the education sector.
I urge Beijing officials to exercise prudence when giving their opinions about the current state of affairs in Hong Kong.
The local education sector and the general public must also stay vigilant and cautious about any moves by the government in order to prevent “one country, two systems” from crumbling.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 15.
Translation by Alan Lee
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