Revolution in the Classroom: Part 3, a Hong Kong Story

Gareth Stevens continues with his longer discussion of the interplay between modern education, neo-liberalism, meritocracy and democracy. In part three he tells of how the international school he worked in for 11 years failed to engage its students with the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement (or the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ as it was called at the time) and he argues that in not doing so they abdicated a core responsibility as an education provider.

A Hong Kong story: Politics on our doorstep

I would like to switch to a more narrative form of writing to relay the events that led to my growing conviction that the need to engage students in local politics is not just desirable but essential.

In the September 2014 and for 79 days over 100,000 suffragists took to the streets of Hong Kong. This was no real surprise, the insurrection had been expected, the only unknown variables were the timing, the scale and the endgame. Above all the protest was a thing of beauty. Largely positive and peaceful, it was, in my opinion, a gleaming model for any future democratic outpourings. The central thoroughfares of the city, previously devoid of pedestrians and clogged with endless streams of traffic, were now truly occupied by thousands of tents. I think it is fair to say that most of the protesters enjoyed the sense of space and community they themselves had forged. For the duration of occupy the dual carriageways spitting distance from the city’s financial centre resembled a more orderly version of the Glastonbury Festival. The encampment became strewn with First Aid tents, public lectures and recycling stations. More significantly, the protest spawned hundreds of site specific artworks, that promoted the action’s cause and were destined to be photographed and take their rightful place in a number of coffee table books.

One could be forgiven for mistaking the beautiful, sometimes sedate and civilized nature of this public action as feeble, lacking rigour and half-hearted. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The protest itself became a living indictment of the state of play in Hong Kong at that time. It was a creative expression of all the things the protesters were fighting for. This was not just a march of disillusioned placard holding discontents, it was about establishing publicly owned space, a platform for discussion, and a fully flourishing micro-community. The ongoing protest was a manifestation of responsible and respectful youth leadership. An example of true democracy, the kind that those involved felt entitled to and responsible for securing. By squatting the corporate spaces on the doorstep of Tamar (the home of the HK government’s legislative council), the protesters were saying “remember that this city belongs to its people”.

That is not to say that the process was entirely peaceful. There were scary times when confrontations between police and protesters got out of hand. The term Umbrella Revolution itself was coined after many of those involved used umbrellas to fend off pepper spray. The signature face coverings of the most militant not only withheld identity, but protected the wearers from tear gas. The political process that the civil disobedients were making was that Hong Kong Chief Executives are selected by an Election Committee whose representatives have to be approved by Beijing. Thus the protest was a demonstration of discontent for this faux form of democracy.

So whilst ostensibly the Umbrella Movement was about the fight for a more representative and just form of democracy in Hong Kong, there were many, not to be ignored, undercurrents that brought the event about and formed the way it played out.

As Alvin Y. H. Cheung writing on The Diplomat website, says of the main underlying situation …..

“Hong Kong’s current system of governance has aptly been described as “the result of collusion between Hong Kong’s tycoons and Beijing’s Communists.” Half of Hong Kong’s legislature is made up of “functional constituencies” representing “special interests.” The end result of this is that the 1,200-strong Election Committee that currently chooses Hong Kong’s Chief Executive disproportionately favors corporate interests.

This skewed institutional framework is a major contributor to a whole host of quality-of-life issues. For example, the dispute over the high-speed rail public works project in 2010 – railroaded through the legislature despite significant public opposition – is a vivid illustration of the consequences of a political system in which business interests can run roughshod over other considerations. Successive chief executives, too, have been able to ignore quality-of-life issues affecting the general public precisely because they are accountable only to their “constituents” and not the general electorate.”

It was clear, and had been for some time, that Hong Kong’s corporate interests were trumping any concerns for the SAR’s disenfranchised and poor.

The wealth gap in Hong Kong is in your face. It is not uncommon to see an octogenarian woman manually pushing an overburdened trolley of cardboard for recycling and having to take extra effort to circumnavigate one of the many personally number plated Bentleys or Rolls Royces that can be sometimes parked in alleys in SoHo.

The OXFAM Hong Kong Poverty Report (October 2016) outlines many other reasons why the youth had no other recourse than to take to the streets. Firstly a ridiculous minimum wage benchmark continuously made meaningless in the face of inflation and living costs. A poverty line defined inaccurately and unsympathetically which took no account of hidden assets or rising costs of living. An application process for Low-income Working Family Allowance was weighted by complicated bureaucracy and laden with requirements to disclose ‘face-losing’ and arguably private information.

On top of all this even the often well qualified and proactive amongst the city’s youth were inhibited from any upward mobility or chances to enroll in oversubscribed Universities in the city. It is far from unusual for people in their late 20s who are well educated to be still sharing their tiny homes, indeed their bedrooms, with their extended families. Such are the property prices in Hong Kong that GBP500,000 will only buy you a 500 square foot flat.

It is also worth mentioning that throughout its duration the question on everyone’s mind was how would Occupy end? Surely Beijing would not send in the PLA and thus cause an endgame similar to Tiananmen Square in 1989? Whilst people hoped this would not happen, the ever present threat of this eventuality took its toll and drove tensions up.

While Occupy was in process the bus routes to our school were blocked. My colleagues and I spent hours negotiating with our service provider to reroute and reschedule the main means by which our students got to and from school. In turn we had to restructure our school day and had to increasingly deal with understandably fractious parents. Some students, particularly from outlying islands were having to get up much earlier and were consequently more tired and stressed by the time they were with us and supposed to be ready to learn effectively.

The Umbrella Revolution was making itself felt in our school community, but I am ashamed to say, we neither openly discussed it, nor took the opportunity to enliven our curriculum offer by connecting with it in some way. Sadly a substantial proportion of our students were either indifferent or even unsympathetic to what was going on. Talking of the recession in the UK, the comedian Miles Jupp recalls seeing a TV news report in which the anchor shouts “There’s panic on the streets”. “Is there?” reflects Jupp, “I appear to be eating toast in my slippers”. During Occupy the International School ‘community’ in Hong Kong, to all intents and purposes, sat on the bylines ‘eating toast in its slippers’.

On a personal level, and in a small way, I was unexpectedly caught up. In the autumn break in October 2014, my boss was out of town and I was the designated Principal in his place. I received an urgent phone call from our bus company. It transpired that they were intending to take out a legal injunction in an attempt to clear Gloucester Road in Central Hong Kong of its protesters and thereby return their bus schedule to somewhere approximating a normal service. The protest had gone on too long they argued and was negatively affecting the education of our students. In the Principal’s absence, I was asked to write a personal letter to support the injunction. After short deliberation I refused. Now I am not making some claim to greatness. I did (or didn’t do) what I thought I ought to. Subsequent to my refusal the request was passed up to ‘head office’.

Around the same time the Chief Executive of the schools foundation I was working for sent an email around to all teachers across all our schools suggesting that they should not be seen down at the protest and should not discuss it in their classrooms.

I was shocked at this at the time. By accepting the first part of the email I was being invited to relinquish one of my fundamental human rights. This was deeply ironic as the school had been recently accredited by CiOS (Council of International Schools) which had schools’ adherence to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights as its central raison d’etre.

The second clause of the email request seemed to be asking me to renege on what I saw as a core responsibility of my role as an educator. It instantly told me that our citizenship programme was impotent in the extreme; that there was no collective will to encourage our students to understand what was going on in their backyard nor to sanction them getting involved. That email in one swoop said it is not our job to promote civic engagement.

As a result of all this, Occupy became a defining point for me as an educator. Whilst I had only been what can only be described as an onlooker, I now realized that I was complicit in the continuation of the problems that underpinned and caused the whole movement in the first place. That time was not on the same level as Henry V’s “dark night of the soul” but it was in the same ballpark for me.

But we were an IBO world school weren’t we? It was our central mission to “develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world”. Throughout the suite of IB courses from the Primary Years Programme (all our partner primary schools delivered this curriculum) through to the diploma, our students were continually expected to develop the skills and attitudes to be active in making the world better and more just. Mysteriously the term “action” means civic engagement and activism in the PYP, but means, basically, physical education in the diploma. All our incoming students culminating experience at primary level was called the ‘exhibition’. This required students to work collaboratively in groups to research a global issue, make recommendations for solutions and, more importantly, be involved in ‘action’. A very passionate primary colleague of mine once said “Its that time of year again!” Students designing persuasive presentations about “land rights for gay whales”. This statement whilst seeming mordacious, is quite telling. Alright we are talking about 10 year olds here, but shouldn’t they have been required to think and act on more real local issues?

If you set this discussion of whether political discussion has a place in the classroom and what were appropriate roles and responsibilities of teachers, against the fact that the occupy HK movement was itself initiated by Benny Tai Yiu-ting, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong you can not help but see the irony.

And so I began to develop a commitment to promoting civic engagement in a much more meaningful way. Surely this was an indispensable way of creating a discerning ‘public’ who would not unwittingly usher in policies that would fracture communities and further disadvantage the dispriviledged?

To be continued in Part 4, which focusses on Service Learning in schools.

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