Lawmakers have voiced concerns over Beijing’s meddling in Hong Kong’s education system, after the Education Bureau insisted on keeping secret the details of three closed-door meetings with its Chinese counterpart.
The controversy surrounds an arrangement set up last January between the bureau and China’s education ministry to hold “working meetings” twice a year. Three meetings have since been held, but the Hong Kong government has refused to disclose details, citing “respect for the other party.”
However, the Chinese education ministry published a statement last August immediately following the conclusion of the second meeting. It said the two sides will strengthen cooperation in four areas: Curriculum, exam assessment, teaching staff and government administration.
The ministry also released a “Key Points of Work” report in January listing policy directions to be observed by local governments. The document mentioned Hong Kong in one instance: “Fully implement various tasks assigned by the central government in respect of educational work in Hong Kong and Macau.” It did not elaborate on the tasks.
During Wednesday’s legislative session, pro-democracy lawmakers expressed concern over the lack of transparency.
“Why is it that [China] publicised the meeting details while we couldn’t? Why don’t you inform Hongkongers? Why is this kept confidential and secretive?” asked education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen.
He questioned whether the bureau “received instructions during the meetings or on other occasions to complement the work of Chinese authorities in executing the tasks mentioned in the Key Points of Work.”
Lawmaker Claudia Mo said the term “tasks” in the ministry’s report raised questions over Beijing’s potential meddling in the local education system. She cited Article 22 of the Basic Law, which stipulates that no Chinese government departments may interfere in Hong Kong’s internal affairs.
But Undersecretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung, who attended the meeting, asked lawmakers not to resort to “unnecessary speculation.”
“As I deal with Chinese authorities in my day-to-day work, I do not see any of these problems. We restate that the Hong Kong SAR will strictly develop policies on our own. Lawmakers do not need to worry unnecessarily,” he said.
Yeung said the government had begun exchanging views with the Chinese education ministry since 2001. “We seek to understand the differences in our curricula. [Hong Kong] will adjust our curriculum at our own initiative.”
He did not answer lawmakers’ questions as to whether his bureau will report to the legislature or the public on the meetings in the future.
Meanwhile, Democratic Party lawmaker Ted Hui Chi-fung questioned whether the bureau had been instructed to extend the teaching hours on the topic of the Basic Law in local schools.
“Did you discuss with the Chinese government increasing the teaching hours and the manner in which the Basic Law should be taught?” Ted asked.
Yeung replied: “The curriculum changes are completely our own work. It was our own initiative and had nothing to do with the ministry. It was our conscious decision to strengthen Basic Law education.”
“I think that Basic Law education is necessary in Hong Kong. It is necessary for students to learn about it,” he added.
Secretary for Education Eddie Ng has said he would not remain for a second term. It is rumoured that Yeung has been invited to take Ng’s seat.