Sarah is preparing to emigrate from Hong Kong, her birthplace and home, to the United Kingdom because she is concerned about her 8-year-old son’s education.
“I want him to grow up in an environment with enough freedom to do what he wants to do and not be restricted by some invisible threat,” said Sarah, who requested CNN use a pseudonym for fear of being targeted by authorities.
In June, Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong that bans secession, subversion, terrorist activities and collusion with foreign powers. The law was passed to quell the pro-democracy movement that destabilized the financial hub last year, but its reach went far beyond policing protests to criminalizing certain conversations, political positions, publications and even social media posts.
In Hong Kong’s classrooms, it is now unclear what can legally be taught or discussed.
The Education Bureau has ordered schools to remove books and teaching materials that could violate the law. Administrators can call the police if someone insults the Chinese anthem, which must be played in schools on certain holidays. In September, a student who displayed a photo with the slogan “Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now” during class was suspended for a week.
Sarah’s move isn’t just for her son: she is a teacher in Hong Kong. The English Schools Foundation, an international education organization, released new guidelines in September for teachers, seen by CNN, which concluded that the classroom “is not a safe space” for discussion or debate.
It advised teachers to “always be aware of how what you are teaching could be interpreted/misinterpreted by others.” The former Chief Executive of Hong Kong has even posted on his Facebook page personal details of teachers charged over professional misconduct during the protest last year.
In Hong Kong, Sarah owns an apartment and a car – both rare privileges in a city where buying a home is expensive and taking public transport is the norm. But she’s prepared to give it all up for an uncertain life away from family and friends.
“We will do any kind of job. Be a cleaner, do the dishes, be a cashier,” she said. “Because it’s the value we place on the freedom that’s more important than the materialistic life we have.”
CNN spoke to several parents who said they were also preparing to move abroad for their children’s education, and teachers at some schools have reported a higher than normal drop-out rate this year. One mother, who has two children in local primary schools, said her family will move to the UK before the end of the year. Like Sarah, she isn’t sure what her job prospects will be in a country that’s struggling to cope with a rapid rise in coronavirus cases.
“We are sacrificing a lot to move. It will be expensive,” she said. “We want our children to study in a country that offers more freedom.”
Last month, Hong Kong authorities took away a teacher’s registration for life for allegedly “spreading the idea of Hong Kong independence” in class.
Authorities did not give details about the classroom discussion, but local media reported that the teacher showed students a TV documentary, featuring pro-independence figure Andy Chan. They were then asked to answer questions from a worksheet about freedom of speech and proposals for Hong Kong independence. In response to the incident, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said “illegal ideas” and “pro-independence” concepts cannot exist in schools.
Beijing has long blamed the Hong Kong education system for radicalizing its students. In particular, pro-Beijing lawmakers condemn Liberal Studies – a required high school civics course that was introduced in 2009 to strengthen critical thinking and knowledge of contemporary issues. It covers topics including modern China, political participation and Hong Kong identity. Pro-Beijing voices have criticized the course materials for being biased and encouraging students to join anti-government protests. Publishers of textbooks for the course have rewritten parts of it, removing criticism of the Chinese government and the term “separation of powers.”
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Regina Ip says the changes to education will teach students a more balanced history of China, rather than stifle conversation.
“The basic purpose is to bring up our children to at least have proper respect for our country,” Ip said. “I have received complaints about teachers using the classroom as a vehicle of the political beliefs, even stirring up hatred of police, of the Chinese government, of the people of China, portraying them as dirty, backward, repressive.”
Education authorities received 247 misconduct complaints about teachers who allegedly “disseminated hate remarks” and “advocated violence on social media,” from last June to this August. Earlier this month, the Hong Kong education minister said his department had investigated several teachers and students for allegedly bullying the children of police officers, who were on the frontlines of last year’s protests. According to local media reports, a secondary school teacher’s contract was terminated because she allowed students to perform pro-democracy anthem “Glory to Hong Kong.” According to Ip, the song “amounts to sowing the seeds of Hong Kong independence in young minds.”
This summer, the city’s Education Bureau issued new guidelines, requiring Hong Kong schools to play the Chinese anthem during important holidays, and to report to the police those who insult the song. Ip says “many countries” teach their kids to memorize the constitution and sing the national anthem. “I think there is no basic difference,” she added.
For years, Beijing has tried to impose patriotic education in Hong Kong. Joshua Wong, a prominent Hong Kong activist and former leader of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, created a student activist group called Scholarism when he was in high school. In 2012, he rallied 120,000 people to occupy the Hong Kong government’s headquarters to protest a Beijing-backed plan to introduce patriotic, pro-Communist national and moral education lessons in the city’s public schools. Protesters argued the changes amounted to brainwashing, and their actions forced the city’s beleaguered leaders to withdraw the proposed curriculum.
That was the last time the students of Hong Kong won against Beijing.
Since 2012, one of Beijing’s primary aims has been to create a generation of patriotic and loyal Hong Kong youth, according to Lester Shum, onetime deputy secretary-general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students and now an elected lawmaker. He said the current changes could create a new generation who will be “totally brainwashed, not knowing about the wrongdoings from the authorities.”
But Shum says it’s unclear how successful those aims will be, since students can still access free information from the internet and the press.
Rowena He, an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has witnessed these types of changes to an education system play out before. In the spring of 1989, millions took to the streets in Beijing and other cities across China to demand political reforms. The nationwide movement ended on June 4, when the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on its own people Beijing’s city center. After that, the Communist Party launched a patriotic education campaign to instil national pride and change young people’s attitudes towards Western powers.
Today, few young people within mainland China know about the Tiananmen massacre, or pro-democracy protests, because the event is censored from the Chinese internet and books, and is not taught in schools. Many of those who know about the incident believe in the official version that the crackdown was necessary for China’s stability and rise.
But in Hong Kong it will take far longer to “brainwash the younger generation,” He said. “Hong Kong has a strong civil society,” she explained.
He is the author of “Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China.” For years, she taught seminars on the movement in American universities before moving to Hong Kong last year. She was looking forward to attending the June 4 commemoration for the first time in Hong Kong, the only place on Chinese soil where an annual vigil is held. But authorities banned the event in June for the first time in 30 years, citing coronavirus concerns. Many fear it will never take place again. A smaller crowd of people still gathered in Victoria Park this year, leading to the arrest of dozens of democracy activists who were accused of knowingly taking part in an “unauthorized assembly.”
He still teaches her students about the Tiananmen massacre and historical episodes deemed taboo by the Communist Party, but fears of repercussions have followed her throughout her career. In July, the University of Hong Kong fired Benny Tai, a prominent law professor and pro-democracy activist, who said academic staff in the city “are no longer free to make controversial statements.” Local media have reported instances of professors with pro-democracy views whose contracts have been denied.
“We never know what the red line is, that’s the root of censorship and self-censorship,” Rowena He said.
On June 4 this year, He took her students to a replica of the “Goddess of Democracy” standing at the heart of the Chinese University campus. The original Goddess of Democracy was a 10-meter tall statue hastily made by students in 1989 that was destroyed by the Chinese military in Tiananmen Square. The figure is now a global symbol of defiance.
“Those in power can easily manipulate history and erase memory,” He said. “I try my best to speak out the truth – that’s the resistance.”
Some of Rowena’s students plan to leave Hong Kong after graduation. One of them, Tyler, who asked to use a pseudonym to avoid repercussions, said he will move to the UK to pursue graduate studies in Chinese history, because of the “censorship problems” in Hong Kong. “The narrative in Hong Kong and China is quite controlled,” he said.
Tyler took part in student demonstrations at the Chinese University of Hong Kong last year, which became the center of violent clashes between police and protesters. Students set up barricades against police who fired tear gas. Protesters were arrested in large numbers.
“Under the security law, many of us are afraid of being spied on by police,” Tyler said. “So now we are quite worried, but I still saw a lot of students who are willing to sacrifice themselves.”
Some students are determined to stay in Hong Kong. One of Tyler’s classmates plans to become a primary school teacher, so she can keep alive the memory of important events, such as the 1989 crackdown.
“We need someone to continue to teach the next generation and continue to tell them what is right and wrong, so not just let them to be brainwashed by the government,” said the student, who didn’t want to be named for fear of being targeted by authorities.
But Sarah, the teacher who is moving her family to the UK, does not want to wait to see what happens to the next generation. Her biggest fear isn’t what’s happening in Hong Kong currently, but what could happen in decades to come.
By leaving Hong Kong now, she’s hoping her son won’t have to face a difficult decision in the future about whether to abandon the only city he knows.
CNN’s Vanesse Chan also contributed to this report.