Hong Kong’s teacher exodus: Is its national security law the reason?
Some teachers lament the revamp of a school subject that sought to nurture independent thinkers, while others feel schools are merely playing catch-up in national education. The programme Insight examines the academic shake-out.
HONG KONG: She had been a teacher in Hong Kong for 17 years. But a year ago, Lo Kit Ling packed her bags and left for the United Kingdom.
She was no stranger to 12-hour working days, but the load had become “abnormal” after the territory’s national security law came into force in 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic brought on other shifts.
Lo is part of the recent wave of teachers in Hong Kong who have quit. Nearly 12,000 of them have done so since 2021, according to Education Bureau data in April.
Previously an average of about 3,600 teachers resigned or retired annually at subsidised or government-run kindergartens and primary, secondary and special needs schools, reported the South China Morning Post.
WATCH: Hong Kong’s teachers are leaving. Is the national security law behind it? (46:16)
The figure rose to 5,270 (of 73,118 teachers) in the 2020-21 school year and shot up to 6,550 (of 72,374 teachers) the following year.
While the Hong Kong Education Policy Concern Organisation — which advises the government on educational matters — stopped short of calling the resignations a crisis, chairman Mervyn Cheung acknowledged that the increase was “quite substantial”.
In terms of numbers, a teacher shortage doesn’t exist on an impressive scale because as long as the new recruits can satisfy the minimum requirements, that is, getting a degree from a recognised university, they can register to become a teacher.”
It worries him, however, that the more experienced teachers are leaving. “Schools have to make do with … young teachers, who have yet to prove their interest and also capability in a school environment,” he said.
Students have borne the brunt of teachers’ departures.
Bernice Chang, who recently graduated from secondary school, experienced “quite a major turnover” of teachers. There were 12 different teachers in her four core subjects over three years, the 17-year-old recalled. This affected the students’ “learning efficiency”.
In English class, for instance, “maybe the previous teacher didn’t properly hand over to the next one,” she said. “So the next teacher asked us to do the same paper again, which was a waste of time and effort.”
But why are more Hong Kong educators quitting, the programme Insight asks.
‘INCREASING POLITICAL PRESSURE’ CITED
Scores of residents left after China passed the national security law in June 2020, which was aimed at tackling secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces in the territory. The law came after the 2019 pro-democracy protests.
By the middle of last year, more than 202,000 residents had left for countries such as the UK, Australia and Canada, which eased pathways to immigration for people from Hong Kong.
While teaching is considered a stressful profession with some degree of attrition, a survey conducted in 2021 found that 40 per cent of Hong Kong teachers planned or wanted to leave their jobs.
Of this group, the majority cited “increasing political pressure” as the main reason. Dissatisfaction with educational policies was another reason, according to the Professional Teachers Union survey of 1,178 teachers. The union disbanded months later, citing “enormous pressure”.
The national security law would transform the school curriculum.
Under Article 9 of the law, the Hong Kong government shall take “necessary measures to strengthen public communication, guidance, supervision and regulation” on national security matters, including those relating to schools and universities.
Under Article 10, national security education shall be promoted at schools and universities.
LIBERAL STUDIES REVAMP
One subject in particular came under scrutiny: liberal studies, introduced as a core subject to secondary school students in 2009.
It was aimed at developing critical thinking skills through discussion of controversial topics but was singled out by pro-Beijing critics as stoking the radicalisation of youths in the 2019 protests.
Lo, who taught the subject, disagrees. She feels it was made “a kind of scapegoat” for the social unrest.
Liberal studies teachers “had to revise all teaching material (with) any potential to violate the national security law, … module by module, chapter by chapter”, she recalled. “So horrible.”
The subject was revamped and, in 2021, renamed Citizenship and Social Development (CSD).
Unable to bear “such suppression and restriction”, Lo uprooted and headed for England to “find a place (where) I can get back to (being) myself”.
Last year, new CSD textbooks made the headlines for stating that Hong Kong was formerly an occupied territory, instead of a British colony.
Explaining its stance in a statement in August last year, the Education Bureau said it did not deny “the history of the British occupation of Hong Kong”.
“We must develop a correct understanding among students that, as a matter of fact, China has all along held the sovereignty of Hong Kong,” the bureau stated.
“Though the British had implemented ‘colonial rule’ over Hong Kong since 1842, they did not hold the sovereignty of Hong Kong. Therefore, Britain did not have the right to allow Hong Kong to become self-governing.”
On July 1, 1997, China officially resumed “the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong”, it added.
The CSD curriculum has scrapped the parts on Hong Kong identity, said Johnny, who has taught the subject for 13 years and spoke on condition of anonymity. “It only allows students to understand the concept of being a Chinese citizen.”
The revamp, he said, has changed the way the subject is taught. Whereas teachers could “gather different teaching materials to discuss social events with students” in the past, they now follow textbooks recommended by the Education Bureau.
“Those textbook materials are sometimes like political propaganda, so the classroom discussions become homogenous,” he added. “Whether it’s Hong Kong or the mainland, we can only talk about the positive developments. … We can’t talk about the negatives.”
A comparison of textbooks
Teachers will be “100 per cent safe” if they follow the textbooks, he said. “The problem is that students will ask the teachers for their views. If you can’t handle it properly, will students denounce you?”
This has created an atmosphere where teachers and students find it hard to trust one another, he feels. “Suppression and concern are growing on campuses.”
NURTURING ‘GOOD CITIZENS’
But some welcome the revamp.
Previously “many” school leaders and teachers knew little about national education topics such as Chinese history and how the Chinese Communist Party came about, said Hui Wai Tin, a former lecturer in education studies at the Hong Kong Baptist University.
Students should be nurtured to become not only “good citizens” of Hong Kong but also China, he said.
National education “isn’t unique to Hong Kong”, noted Legislative Council member Regina Ip. The new curriculum aims at filling “the gaps (left by) what we failed to do in the past two decades” and promoting understanding of the importance and concept of national security.
The Legislative Council’s education panel received “a lot of complaints about teachers hijacking the classroom to promote anti-China views and misrepresenting Hong Kong’s political system”, she said.
Under the territory’s common law system, “people are free to do whatever they like” so long as they are “careful not to incite Hong Kong independence or (the) overthrow of Hong Kong authorities”, said Ip.
“If national security is taught properly, there’ll be no limitation, no damage to freedom of expression or freedom of academic instruction,” she said.
Hui added: “If the education is successful, they’ll become patriotic.”
FEWER STUDENTS MAKE FOR ‘SOFT LANDING’?
So, what does the future hold for Hong Kong’s education sector? There are reasons for hope or at least some breathing space, say some stakeholders.
Along with the increased departure of teachers, there has been a decrease in student enrolment owing to the emigration wave and Hong Kong’s declining fertility rate, which stood at 0.772 births per woman in 2021.
“The relatively large-scale departure of students from the local schools has helped the government to solve the so-called teacher shortage problem, because fewer teachers … are wanted these days,” said Cheung. The teacher-student ratio has also improved, he added.
Ip said the Education Bureau is “promoting school mergers and the closures of some schools” that fail to attract students. “An industry shake-out is no bad thing in my opinion,” she said.
“Hong Kong is a free-market economy. … We believe in survival of the fittest. I don’t think we should (be) maintaining schools just for the sake of providing jobs to teachers and headmasters.”
At Tsuen Wan Trade Association Primary School, principal Chow Kim-ho has taken the changes in his stride. Although leading a team of less experienced teachers “can be challenging”, they are “ideal” when it comes to energy levels.
“Hong Kong’s universities are continuously cultivating new teachers, so there’ll be a replenishment of the lost teachers,” he said. “Overall, I think this issue will have a soft landing.”
Meanwhile, Johnny is weighing up all his options and mulling over migration, not for his sake but that of his child.
“My original plan was to keep my mouth shut, focus on my work and stay here. I’ve built my profession here. I’ve built my network here. I feel attached to this place,” he said.
His attitude changed after he became a parent. He wants his offspring to be able to “freely discuss” questions to get at the truth.
“There’s a (heavy) price to pay (for leaving), but when you have children, you’ll think about their long-term development,” he said.
Watch this episode of Insight here. The programme airs on Thursdays at 9pm.