If there’s one place in Hong Kong that has yet to be invaded by government politics and propaganda, it’s the schools.
That makes them one of the last bastions of a basic freedom — free speech — and one of its last defenders.
Because of their unique place in Hong Kong society, schools enjoy a high degree of autonomy from the government and students have been free to speak their minds.
Lately, however, there have been growing signs of increasing political interference on campuses, even a direct challenge to press freedom.
Was it a coincidence that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying singled out a student publication for withering criticism in his recent policy address?
Leung accused Undergrad magazine of promoting independence for Hong Kong by publishing an academic discussion of self-determination.
Granted the point is well taken, what does it say about the government’s policy to encourage independent thinking and protect our core values such as the right to speak our minds?
Hong Kong people need to pay attention to political nuances in the slightest moves by the government to tinker with our cherished freedoms.
Which is why there’s more to Leung’s recent “surprise” appearance at a school debate competition than it looks.
Leung secretly attended the event hosted by the Po Leung Kok without notifying the organizers.
When he emerged, he faced angry questions from the students.
One wanted to know why he denounced Undergrad in his policy speech and what made it so deserving of his criticism.
Another accused him of lacking credibility as a leader, reeling off a list of his questionable policies and failures.
That is not what we imagine our leader being subjected to, but Leung embarrassed himself, first of all, by coming uninvited.
Still, he was ready with a stock answer: It is his responsibility to uphold the Basic Law and point out Undergrad’s “wrongdoing”.
In Leung’s mind, it was not a matter of free speech but a matter of law enforcement.
Now it has emerged that the part of his speech devoted to the denunciation of the student publication was his own making, neither written in by a speechwriter nor suggested by a policy adviser.
On the other hand, a secondary school in Sha Tin came under fire from angry parents for inviting student leader Joshua Wong to share his experiences about student activism.
The parents had little to say to Wong except that he is a “bad example” to others and a “bad student with a poor academic record”.
And what about the relentless sniping by state media of the University of Hong Kong law faculty for supposed “poor research”?
Interestingly, the research program is headed by former dean Johannes Chan, a democracy supporter. Benny Tai, a co-founder of the Occupy Central movement and a key figure in the recent democracy protests, is a member of the university’s law faculty.
These incidents are just snippets of what could be a bigger problem in our schools — that they’re being turned into a battleground of ideology and government propaganda.
School principals and students must defend academic freedom from political interference or our schools will be nothing more than diploma mills for ideologues.
But whenever I’m reminded that the 79-day street protests began as a class boycott, I begin to think there’s still hope.
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