Hong Kong schools pull out of debate contest after furore over protest-related topics

Chan Ho-him

At least four secondary schools have withdrawn from a debate competition after a pro-Beijing outcry over the discussion of protest-related topics, its organisers have said.

Debate motions such as “Hong Kong people should fight for Hong Kong independence” and “Restructuring the police force does more good than harm” were slammed by pro-Beijing teachers’ union the Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers last week. The HKFEW said such propositions were politicised and inappropriate.

More than 120 schools are taking part in the first-ever Hong Kong Secondary Schools Debate Competition, with preliminary rounds running from November to January. Most of the 145 finalised topics were proposed by participating schools and chosen based on criteria including relevance to local and international current affairs and resonance with secondary-school students.

But four schools said over the past few days they were pulling out of the competition, citing reasons such as scheduling clashes, organisers said on Monday, adding that it was a “pity”. The withdrawals followed denunciations of the protest-related topics by the HKFEW and pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao on Friday.

Organisers from the Hong Kong Schools Debate Federation (HKSDF), set up in September by more than 10 members with years of debating experience, said it had no plans to drop any of the topics, saying the competition was “politically neutral and professional”.

“Debating has always been a rational and politically neutral activity. No matter what the topic is, both the proposition and opposition sides have to do thorough research and formulate solid arguments so as to win,” said HKSDF organising member Kelvin Yang.

Less controversial topics related to areas such as economics and people’s livelihoods, including “Statutory minimum wage does more good than harm” and “Hong Kong should introduce a wealth tax system”.

Another HKSDF member, surnamed Chan, said: “We understand some schools might feel pressurised but many teachers and students might still want to join the competition.”

Kelvin Yang of HKSDF said debating had “always been a rational and politically neutral activity”. Photo: Chan Ho-him

The group added that simply debating the fraught topics did not denote any sort of bias. For instance, it added, the topic on restructuring the police force was debated last Saturday and the team opposing it won.

But it added it was worried more schools would withdraw from the competition under pressure.

Hong Kong has been rocked since early June by protests sparked by an unpopular extradition bill, which have since broadened to calls for greater democracy and police accountability. Demonstrators have regularly clashed with police, who have repeatedly used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon, in the face of hurled projectiles such as bricks and petrol bombs.

The competition is sponsored by the Project Citizens Foundation, an organisation co-founded by former politicians and professionals including former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang, a pro-democracy campaigner. HKSDF said the foundation was not involved in selecting debate topics, and had only helped secure and pay for venues.

One principal from a participating school said, on condition of anonymity, that most of the 145 topics were insightful and worth discussing, but added that some “more politically inclined” topics might bring politics into schools, even if that was not the aim.

Secondary-school students are sometimes immature and might not be too familiar with [political issues]. It is therefore not appropriate to ask them to debate about these topics

Wong Wai-shing, vice-chairman of the HKFEW

Ta Kung Pao lashed out at the competition in a news report last Friday, describing it as “using debate as a medium to brainwash students”.

Speaking on Monday, Wong Wai-shing, vice-chairman of the HKFEW, said he hoped the Education Bureau would actively follow up the issue and notify schools about the “potential risks” of participating.

“Secondary-school students are sometimes immature and might not be too familiar with [political issues]. It is therefore not appropriate to ask them to debate about these topics,” Wong said.

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In a statement on Friday, his organisation said: “The ulterior motive of attempting to politicise school campuses through this debate competition is abundantly clear.”

The Education Bureau said that if schools find that any extracurricular activities might harm students’ learning and personal growth, they should persuade students not to join. It added that if schools had already agreed to participate in such of activities, they should withdraw from the event and explain the reasons behind the move to students.

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