Thousands of teachers and their supporters in Hong Kong have gathered at Edinburgh Place in Central in a rally against the government over its handling of complaints involving educators accused of protest-related misconduct.
Many in the crowd on Friday wore masks as students, university lecturers, pro-democracy lawmakers also came to show support. They chanted slogans including “Say no to white terror” and “Educators, unite as one”.
The move came as a war of words raged between the Professional Teachers’ Union, which represents about 85 per cent of teachers in the city, and the Education Bureau. Both sides have been trading barbs since December over the treatment of teachers in cases linked to the anti-government movement.
A secondary schoolteacher, 50, who used a pseudonym of Sugar, said she felt “angry” about the vast number of teachers facing complaints and suspension in recent months, especially cases where teachers had only expressed their personal views on social media.
Sugar, who has taught Chinese for more than 28 years, also said she felt “disappointed” at Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung and accused the bureau of “scapegoating” teachers and schools.
Yeung told mainland Chinese news outlet Shanghai Observer last Saturday that the government had the power to disqualify principals who were deemed unsuitable for their jobs.
“A few years ago, I thought Yeung had a conscience, but [that] interview shows he has betrayed teachers,” Sugar said, adding that she believed the minister could no longer represent the majority of teachers’ voices.
“As a member of the education sector, we should stand up and speak out.”
Another secondary schoolteacher surnamed Yuen, in his 40s, who has taught science for more than 20 years, said he believed the Education Bureau was “threatening principals” when it said they could be removed from their positions if they did not cooperate with investigations on teachers.
“When there were previous cases of principals abusing their power, the [bureau] had not said they would use their powers to suspend the principals. But now when there were no such cases of principals not cooperating with the bureau’s investigation, the bureau has mentioned that power,” he said.
A fourth-year university student, 23, surnamed Chan, said she wanted to “thank teachers” for their hard work and show support for them at Friday’s rally.
“The government has been trying to suppress their voices. Teachers should be able to freely express themselves when they are not at work – including going to protests or making comments on social media – as they are also human and are entitled to freedom of speech,” she said.
Hong Kong has been rocked by protests for more than seven months. Sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill which would have allowed for the transfer of suspects to mainland China for trial, the campaign has since morphed into a wider call for an investigation into police conduct and universal suffrage, among other demands.
So far, 80 teachers and teaching assistants have been arrested in connection with the protests, and the bureau has received 123 protest-related complaints against educators, with wrongdoing confirmed in 13 cases.
Some of the complaints centred on online comments made by teachers.
The union accused the bureau of not giving teachers a chance to defend themselves against the charges before being notified that their cases had been substantiated.
Union president Fung Wai-wah previously said the bureau was “spreading white terror” and the government was blaming teachers for encouraging students to take to the streets.
The bureau hit back in a written statement on Thursday night, accusing the union of a loss of professionalism.
“The bureau has repeatedly explained the complaints process, but the union continues to twist facts and spread worry among teachers. It seems to be the one that is actually inciting white terror,” the statement read.
On Friday morning, Yeung said the bureau had found the response from principals “very positive” so far in terms of fulfilling their duties to investigate complaints.
“At present we have not been carrying out any investigations against principals on this particular matter,” he said.
The organiser estimated about 20,000 participated in the rally. Police put the number at about 2,500.
A police spokesman said officers seized about a dozen petrol bombs in large plant pots at Chater Garden in Central after a tip-off at around 4pm on Friday. A source said a total of 18 bottles of petrol bombs were found and did not rule out that they could be linked to the evening’s mass assembly.
Additional reporting by Christy Leung