Student and teacher groups on Friday launched a petition urging Hong Kong’s education authorities to withdraw controversial changes made to liberal studies textbooks under a new vetting scheme, saying the corrections amounted to “political censorship”.
The petition, organised by the newly formed student group Education Breakthrough along with the Progressive Teachers’ Alliance and Hong Kong Educators Alliance, aims to collect at least 10,000 signatures calling on the bureau to disclose the vetting criteria.
Six publishers, which together comprise most of the liberal studies textbook market, have voluntarily entered a new “professional consultancy service” offered by the Education Bureau, with the first batch of vetted textbooks expected to come into use by September.
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Liberal studies, a compulsory subject for senior secondary pupils, was introduced in 2009 to encourage critical thinking and raise awareness of contemporary issues. But it has come under fire in recent years from pro-establishment figures who have deemed some teaching materials biased and blamed it for “radicalising” young people.
The changes, first revealed by the publishers on Monday, included the removal of the phrase “separation of powers” as well as multiple political cartoons, while criticisms towards the Hong Kong and mainland Chinese governments had been toned down.
Responding to accusations of censorship, education officials on Wednesday defended the changes as “sieving out the inaccurate parts from the rest” and helping students develop positive values, an argument that failed to convince many pupils and teachers.
Speaking at a Friday press conference, Isaac Cheng Ka-long, a university student and spokesman for Education Breakthrough, said: “We think the consultancy service is basically a form of political censorship, aimed at turning textbooks into government mouthpieces and depriving pupils of the right to learn about our society’s problems and to develop critical thinking.”
In response, the bureau repeated its Wednesday statement, but did not respond to questions about the vetting criteria or whether changes might still be withdrawn.
Both Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily and state news agency Xinhua issued commentaries on Friday in support of the vetting scheme, saying it could “cleanse the toxic teaching materials” and suggested it should be “just the first step of more to be done”.
They also hit out at the Professional Teachers’ Union – which earlier slammed the vetting scheme as censorship and causing more restrictions on teachers in class – accusing the 100,000-strong pro-democracy group of attempting to smear the consultancy service.
An expanded check by the Post of textbooks from four of the six publishers found multiple instances of deletions or the replacement of text, illustrations and cartoons about politically sensitive events in Hong Kong and the mainland, including the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Only two of the four textbooks seen by the Post mentioned the bloody June 4, 1989, crackdown in their pre-vetted versions. In one of the two that did, descriptions of how troops were sent to remove the demonstrators had been removed from the updated version, which now says only that the “June 4 event” was the result of public outrage caused by government corruption.
The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which organises the city’s annual June 4 vigils commemorating the event, had slammed the changes as downplaying the crackdown and twisting history.
In another textbook, images of Lee Po, a Causeway Bay bookseller who sold books critical of high-ranking Communist Party members before disappearing in December 2015 – then returning across the mainland border three months later – were removed. Photos of the annual July 1 pro-democracy march and the 2016 Mong Kok riot were also removed.
One textbook’s mention of how the consumption of wild animals on the mainland caused the spread of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003 was also toned down, with the vetted version removing a phrase that read “live animals were bred, butchered and handled in environments with poor hygiene”.
A consultant to one of the liberal studies textbooks that had been changed after vetting told the Post on Friday that she had not been told by her publisher about the amendments, some of which she said were unnecessary.
Karen Mak Ka-wai, a lecturer from the University of Hong Kong's science faculty, said her role as a consultant involved offering advice to the publisher about whether any of the content was incorrect. She last performed that role in 2019.
Mak, who raised questions about the removal of certain sensitive content, said: “Seeing the latest amendments, it makes [me] doubt whether some of them are being made based on or related to political operations.”
The Education Bureau said a team of inspectors, university academics and education professionals had given publishers advice under the voluntary consultancy service, but Mak said she had no knowledge of the members who sat on the team.
The bureau did not respond to questions about the size and make-up of the team.