16 September 2019
"We need to teach our students the truth," said a former secondary school headmaster surnamed Wong (left) at a teachers' forum on electoral reform, which was attended by top government officials. Photos: Apple Daily, HK government
"We need to teach our students the truth," said a former secondary school headmaster surnamed Wong (left) at a teachers' forum on electoral reform, which was attended by top government officials. Photos: Apple Daily, HK government

Teachers: We won’t teach lies about universal suffrage

The Hong Kong government appears to be getting increasingly confident that the Legislative Council will approve its proposal for the 2017 chief executive election, citing a shift in public perception favoring Beijing’s political reform formula.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s administration pursues the argument that its plan is better than reverting to the old system where Hong Kong’s leader is chosen by an election committee. The current proposal will enable all eligible citizens to cast their vote, and more democratic elements will be incorporated into the process in future exercises.

The proposal is a good start to the implementation of universal suffrage, the government maintains.

But it appears that Hong Kong people are not easily convinced. They know that the central government will retain the power to screen the would-be candidates, and Hong Kong people will end up voting for candidates already chosen by an election committee, most of whose members are pro-Beijing.

Representatives of the legal and medical professions as well as those from the statistics and actuarial science sectors have voiced concern that the government formula, in fact, runs counter to the principle of universal suffrage.

And now even some pro-Beijing education professionals are condemning the proposal, saying that they cannot endorse the government proposal to their students, knowing the claim that it incorporates the principle of universal suffrage is a lie.

On Saturday the Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers, a pro-Beijing teachers’ union, held a forum on the 2017 electoral reform. The group could not have had a better line-up of guests: Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen and Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Raymond Tam were in attendance.

The officials obviously expected the comments from the floor would be supportive of the government proposal given the group’s pro-Beijing background. They were in for a shock.

At least two of the teachers who had the chance to speak directly to the officials minced no words in assailing the government’s approach to promote the reform package and describing the proposal as a travesty of the principle of universal suffrage.

During the forum, a former secondary school headmaster surnamed Wong said the political reform framework set by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee on Aug. 31 was clearly a screening process for the 2017 election.

“The decision is clearly a screening concept, which is completely different from the concept of genuine universal suffrage,” Wong said at the forum.

“As a mathematics teacher, we won’t teach our students that a square is a circle, and a circle a square. We need to teach students the truth. And now that our government has taken the lead to be a liar, how can we teach our next generation well?”

Another teacher, who identified herself as Mrs. Wong, also spoke against Beijing’s formula, saying that it sets a high barrier for those who want to run in the election. 

She said it is easy for a prospective candidate to apply since they only need to receive nominations from one-eighth of the 1,200-strong nominating committee, but they would need the support of half of the panel members to qualify as a candidate.

The second barrier is clearly a screening process to eliminate from the race those who are perceived to be unfriendly to Beijing, she said. “Is it universal suffrage? It should be called fake universal suffrage.”

It is clear that the government is playing a public opinion game to push its election reform package. It is leveraging its extensive influence over mass media — from newspapers, radio and television to online media and media in public transport — to send out the message that it simply wants to implement universal suffrage in the territory. Never mind if prospective candidates need to win half of the votes of the nominating committee. It gives all eligible voters the right to cast their ballots, it says.

Various surveys conducted by local universities showed that the public has been split apart by the government’s electoral reform proposal. While some quarters welcome the chance to vote directly for Hong Kong’s next leader, others continue to struggle with the question of “how democratic is the process”.

It seems government officials find themselves in a very vulnerable position whenever they attempt to answer this question. Yet they will continue to sing the old refrain that “one person, one vote” is a genuine exercise of universal suffrage — just ignore the small detail about the nominating process.

But Hong Kong people simply cannot accept the lie. They will have to support the democratic way of life that is now under threat as Beijing tightens its rule over the territory.

Most of them will not try to challenge the authorities who insist on muddling the issue of universal suffrage, in which case they will have to rely on their lawmakers to take action, based on their view of what constitutes a genuine direct election.

Beijing has decreed that the political reform package for the 2017 chief executive election should pass the Legislative Council. That should provide little room for the government to adjust the proposal rather than risk the consequences of its rejection.

Many of those among the so-called silent majority would not dare to voice their views about universal suffrage. But as the teachers in the pro-Beijing forum have shown, there are limits to their seeming indifference.

It would do the government a lot of good to listen to what the people are saying, rather than just seek comments that support its views.

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EJ Insight writer