Fourteen more schools have withdrawn from a debate competition for secondary pupils in Hong Kong, prompting organisers to accuse the Education Bureau of pressuring schools into shying away from “sensitive issues”.
The Hong Kong Secondary Schools Debate Competition, which began in November last year, had attracted participants from 121 local schools.
Last month, at least four schools withdrew after vocal pro-Beijingers objected to some of the debate motions, such as “Restructuring the police force does more good than harm” and “Hong Kong people should fight for Hong Kong independence”.
The city’s pro-Beijing teachers’ union, the Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers, and newspaper Ta Kung Pao were among the competition’s critics.
Five other schools pulled out earlier because of scheduling issues.
According to a volunteer member of the organising body, the Hong Kong Schools Debate Federation, 14 more schools had pulled out as of Saturday, reducing the number of participating groups to 98.
The member, who only gave her surname as Chan, said the 14 schools did not give organisers detailed reasons for their pulling out.
“But we know school administrations had told teachers and debate team coaches to pull out because some debate topics are political,” Chan said.
Citing feedback from the education sector, Chan also said the government had contacted schools asking if they were taking part in the competition, and urging them “not to debate sensitive issues during sensitive times”.
In some cases, teachers were told to submit a list of names of team members to the bureau if pupils refused to pull out, she said.
Hong Kong has been rocked by civil unrest for more than seven months, with protesters and police regularly engaged in violent clashes on the city’s streets.
According to Chan, about 40 per cent of the 145 finalised topics were related to economic issues, while only 20 per cent dealt with politics.
She insisted the competition was politically neutral, noting that the opposing team won in the first round when debating whether to restructure the police force.
“The bureau should not put pressure on the schools and they can contact us directly,” she said.
The bureau said it had been in touch with schools over the competition, but did not say if it had told any to withdraw from the competition.
“The relevant debate competition has raised concerns, as many topics are related to social events in recent months and are skewed,” a spokesman said.
He also said some issues, such as advocacy for Hong Kong independence, had “no room for meaningful debates”.
Schools should not send students into activities that may bring negative influences, he added.
Chan also said students should be able to debate issues they would encounter in their daily lives, and added that organisers would not change the topics already selected. There had been no complaints from parents, she said.
“What we can do now is to explain more to schools and students … to allay concerns,” Chan said.