HONG KONG – The visual arts teacher in high school couldn't go to the front of the protest, but he was inspired by the demonstrations for democracy and unleashed his own kind of subversion: cartoons.
He drew a policeman sweeping a bloody protester under a carpet modeled after the Chinese flag. Another sketch, titled "Lunchtime," showed popular snacks – an eggnog tart and deep-fried French toast – next to a tear gas canister. He captured the relentless desperation that seized Hong Kong people every night after the demonstrations, with the image of a man lying in bed crying himself to sleep.
Everywhere Wong looked he saw China curtailing the freedoms that had made Hong Kong a blatant city of towering glass, rough politics, and the mercury trade. He drew in shocking detail what he lost and shared his work on social media using the pseudonym @vawongsir. He thought his identity was secure. But then came the anonymous complaint to the Education Bureau that he was "posting inappropriate illustrations online".
Wong would end up losing his job.
"I felt powerless," he said.
With China's tightened control of Hong Kong, including the passage of a new national security law, pro-democracy activists, politicians, journalists and others in the territory face a communist party determined to quell dissent. Perhaps the greatest threat from this new purge – one that will affect future generations – is increasing pressure on schools and teachers for what students should bring to mind. Both activists and bureaucrats know that a nation's soul is distilled in the classroom. The story can be erased by silencing the teachers and rewriting the textbooks.
"They are making education a tool for controlling thinking in Hong Kong," said Ip Kin-yuen, a pro-democracy lawmaker who represents the education sector and is vice president of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union. "There are many instances where teachers are wrong and subject to exaggerated allegations. I would call it political persecution."
Hong Kong is being remade before the world. Chinese head of state Xi Jinping is using his country's economic strength and the planet's preoccupation with the corona virus to curb Hong Kong's democratic ambitions. Xi would like to incorporate this defiant territory into his vision of national unity even as China faces diplomatic strife, particularly from the Trump administration, which is approaching a new Cold War with Beijing's supply chains and America's supply chains in a difficult time of high-tech surveillance Stature as a world leader.
It is this city of 7 million at the center of a rivalry between great powers – in which China sees its future and the West is in danger of losing a vital connection in the Pacific region – that will determine the fate of teachers like Wong (30) . who was too afraid of retaliation to use his first name. When an authoritarian makeover takes root, he and many others feel like they have no place in the classroom.
It is unclear how many teachers have been disciplined or have given up their political views. The Education Bureau said it had received 222 complaints of wrongdoing from teachers in the 12-month period ending June. Of these, 117 were justified, almost half of which led to references or warnings. The remaining half is still being examined. The office declined to disclose the nature of the complaints.
Wong was one of those complaints. Months after his cartoons hit social media, officials at his secondary school, considered one of the best in town, wanted to know if he was running the account. They nudged him about his political views. Wong sought legal advice and the school resigned.
Months passed without a decision. Wong continued to teach his group of 10 students who knew he was behind the drawings but never mentioned it. On the last day in June, hours before the new national security law was introduced to undermine Hong Kong's democratic freedoms, Wong was called to the director's office. He was told that the school no longer had the funds to renew his contract.
Disappointed and unable to push back, Wong went home that night and posted a drawing by a teacher with one hand over his mouth. On a board behind him was the words "Goodbye, students."
"The greatest compassion is losing my students. They are always my top priority," said Wong, who still feels guilty for not having previously protested with his students, including one who was arrested for demonstrating .
"Why is that your responsibility?" he asked. "Why do they have to take on this burden and be oppressed for speaking out against injustice, when they could have played basketball or video games and had fish balls and Siu Mai? As a teacher, I was very ashamed that at a time of danger "I wasn't there to protect my students."
Wong, who remains unemployed, was so desperate to keep his job to pay his ailing mother's medical bills that he offered to work for half of his $ 46,000 salary. The school refused and Wong had no recourse.
He wasn't alone. In June, a middle school music teacher's contract was not renewed after she failed to prevent students from playing a protest anthem during mid-term exams.
Another teacher at the renowned diocesan girls' school was also refused a new contract after the school examined him for his role in pro-democracy demonstrations. The liberal studies instructor was partially blinded in one eye after he was reportedly shot and killed by a police projectile in a protest last year.
Educators say they work under a cloud of fear, subject to arbitrary complaints from sneakers overseeing classrooms. A lawmaker suggested installing surveillance cameras in every school to monitor teachers to see if their speech was a subversion of the state.
Two university educators, Benny Tai and Shiu Ka-chun, who are known for their political activism, say their institutions were pressured to fire them in July. After that, China's Hong Kong Liaison Office welcomed the resignations as "cleaning up the teaching environment".
Hong Kong's reputation for freedom of education was quickly damaged, and academic associations around the world closed the city off from future conventions and seminars.
Hong Kong's dramatic shift from a largely free society to a society more closely resembling the strictly controlled mainland was not due to come until 2047 – the end of a 50-year period since Britain brought the territory back to China in 1997 at a special price agreement known as " one country, two systems ", which should guarantee Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy.
But the deal became increasingly incompatible with an encouraged China led by Xi. The president's great ambitions for a rejuvenated Chinese nation could not stand the challenges to Beijing's authority from a former European colony on China's doorstep. The confrontation with the United States under President Trump only accelerated change.
National security legislation, which threatens violations of life in prison for secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, is directed against anyone who opposes the will of the Chinese Communist Party.
The law was used to arrest government critics such as media tycoon Jimmy Lai and his sons and to exclude anti-establishment candidates from the general election. The deterrent effect led a local Catholic group to cancel a prayer campaign for democracy. Hence it is changed behavior. Self-censorship abounds. Critical thinking is forced underground. The mass protests that conquered the world a year ago have largely fallen silent.
Shiu, one of the recently dismissed college professors, said former colleagues at Baptist University are now avoiding him for fear of upsetting the government. A former employee invited Shiu to lunch but insisted on meeting at a restaurant far from campus so as not to be seen.
"You'd think I was having an affair," said Shiu, who spent six months in prison for participating in the 2014 Umbrella protests.
His former colleagues "are now accomplices in the crackdown," he said. "The Chinese government may be threatening, but it does not apologize for the moral failures of the university and intellectuals. When you see your employees give in one by one, it's not just loneliness that you feel. It's heartbreaking."
The repressive law also suggests that after years of economic incentives and patriotic appeals, China has failed to convince millions of independently thinking Hong Kong residents that their lives would be better under mainland rule.
Stubborn opposition to China's lure is often attributed to foreign influence, particularly the city's schools and universities, which have been accused of radicalizing youth with Western ideals and preventing a Chinese national identity from flourishing.
"The government believes that young people were against the government because they were instigated by others," said Ip. "They have to justify this narrative, so they blame the education system, teachers, classroom materials, curriculum, and even public exams for the large number of teenagers arrested. Teachers essentially became scapegoats."
Resolute pro-Beijing Hong Kong executive Carrie Lam reiterated these claims at an education forum where she said more than 3,000 of the 7,500 people arrested for participating in illegal protests last year were students. Almost half of them were under the age of 18.
"It is extremely worrying that anti-government and country-hostile thoughts have been planted in the hearts of young people," said Lam. "We can't help but ask, 'What went wrong with Hong Kong's education?'"
The chill in academic freedom dates back to the Cold War, when students and teachers in Hong Kong were banned from discussing politics on the orders of the British colonial government. The Mao-inspired communist ferment came from across the border, upsetting local people and making authorities nervous. It wasn't until the 1970s that the British began to loosen control.
Hong Kong's young minds would be much easier to shape in Beijing's vision if the colonial structure were still there. However, the city's educational system maintains an independent and progressive tradition that dates back to the dwindling days of British rule when educators were given the freedom to develop their own curriculum.
"The fact that Beijing has a problem with Hong Kong's education system is an affirmation that Britain has left no legacy of colonial education. Instead, it has left a legacy of liberal education that encourages free and critical thinking," said Steve Tsang, Director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.
This resulted in a generation of politically-minded youth who were responsible for protests against a patriotic education plan in 2012 and during the democracy-friendly umbrella movement. When protests broke out last year, the focus was again on students, staging strikes and human chains, and barricading themselves on campus.
The authorities move quickly to prevent such behavior from happening again. The city's education bureau said expressing anti-government views or participating in protests will lead to discipline.
In the meantime, teachers are expected to complete compulsory training to incorporate national safety law into their teaching. Textbooks are modified in such a way that liberal study material no longer mentions "separation of powers" or political organizations formed by activists. Descriptions of restrictions on freedom of expression have been replaced with passages on economic opportunities that China has made available to Hong Kong. Politically sensitive books, including those written by pro-democracy leader Joshua Wong, as well as titles related to the Tiananmen Square massacre or the Cultural Revolution are being dragged from library shelves.
"Many young people have been corrupt for years, but now, with the National Security Act, the government can monitor, regulate, manage and promote national security through various channels," Hong Kong security minister John Lee told pro-Beijing Ta newspaper Kung Pao recently. In the same interview, he called for "bad apples" to be removed from schools.
Support for Beijing in Hong Kong is by no means small. This reflects the decades that China has exerted influence since the days of British rule. Many still in the minority welcome the crackdown on demonstrators and their sympathizers. A school, teacher and study materials monitoring group formed in May said it had recruited 800 volunteers, including parents, teachers and students.
"We are asking the informants for evidence and checking this with the schools," said David Cua, director of Help Our Next Generation. "If children are unknowingly contaminated (with anti-government thinking), shouldn't teachers get the punishment they deserve?"
Teachers starting their careers under the new restrictive climate say they are paralyzed with fear of saying the wrong thing.
Brian Chan said he already had concerns about teaching liberal studies, a controversial high school course designed to promote critical thinking that has attacked both local and mainland governments for inciting students to protest. Chan wants the freedom to truthfully teach his students about current events, especially now that so much misinformation is available online. However, he fears that regarding the recent history of China and Hong Kong, his students will receive an adjusted version of events.
"I'll cherish the time I teach, but I have to prepare for the worst," said Chan, 23, who planned to start his first full-time teaching job this year until the pandemic closed the city's schools. "The space for academic freedom is diminishing."
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An elementary school teacher surnamed Tang, who also refused to use her first name for fear of reprimand, said her employment was reviewed after a parent complained about asking her students to comment on the need for a national security law .
"I have to make them understand what politics is," Tang said of her students. "And I'm trying to give them more while I still can, and let them discuss these issues as often as possible because they won't be able to do so in the future."
Tang, who is over 20 years old, has always tried to make her classroom a "second home" for her students. She decorated the room, filled it with board games and organized her schedule so she could spend time with her students during the break.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close in January, Tang turned to a digital classroom. Every day she published stories, games, and news articles. She shared documentaries produced by the city's public broadcaster, including one that drew parallels between the Tiananmen Square operation in 1989 and the Polish solidarity movement.
The feedback was positive. A parent who vehemently opposed the Hong Kong protests still thanked Tang for investing in their child. Another, a mainland Chinese immigrant, said the news articles helped the family understand and better integrate into Hong Kong society.
As the protests intensified, the school repeatedly reminded Tang and colleagues to be careful what they said. Undeterred, she continued to urge her students to discuss sensitive current affairs, including the national security law.
After a parent complained to the government authorities, the school called Tang for questioning and issued a letter to the parent apologizing for the mistake.
"If they remove any other information they think is sensitive, the only thing the (students) know will be the official line," Tang said. "In a way, they are successfully brainwashed."
Tang's digital classroom has since been closed and she has been suspended until further notice. A Chinese flag, which is normally only hoisted once a month in their school, now flies permanently on a pole.
(The Los Angeles Times employee Pierson reported from Singapore and the special correspondent Cheung from Hong Kong.)
(c) Los Angeles Times 2020
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