HONG KONG: Freedom of speech in peril, say academics

Academic says officials took him to task for criticising planned reforms of arts education

South China Morning Post
Wednesday, February 7, 2007

By Nora Tong

Legislators have demanded an independent inquiry into controversy surrounding the Hong Kong Institute of Education after new allegations yesterday that government interference had placed "intolerable" curbs on freedom of speech at the teacher training college.

Eight pan-democrat legislators have written to Legco education panel chairman Tsang Yok-sing calling for a special meeting before New Year to discuss the issue.

Their call came after institute academic Victor Lai Ming-hoi said Education and Manpower Bureau officials had taken him to task several times since 2004 for criticising planned reforms of arts education under the new senior secondary curriculum. "Limits on freedom of speech have become intolerable," said Dr Lai, associate professor of visual arts and formerly the head of the institute's department of creative arts and physical education.

The bureau rejected the allegations and others claiming interference by bureau secretary Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, saying ordinary communication with academics had been twisted. It denounced what it said were "inaccurate and malicious claims".

It is the latest development in a row sparked by allegations of government meddling in a decision by the institute's governing council not to reappoint institute president Paul Morris.

Dr Lai claimed that a principal assistant secretary of the bureau had "indicated dissatisfaction" after he criticised "marginalisation" of arts education at a forum in February 2004. He also alleged that in November 2004 an official involved in visual arts at the Curriculum Development Institute said he would not be awarded tenders for special teacher training programmes if he continued to criticise the reforms. He had not received any tenders since then.

In July 2005, a principal assistant secretary had called him to suggest he notify the bureau before publicising his views. This had followed a newspaper article he wrote that suggested some officials had downgraded arts education.

Dr Lai's comments came after the institute's vice-president for academic affairs, Bernard Luk Hung-kay, said this week that Professor Li had pressured the institute to merge with a university. Professor Luk has also claimed Professor Li instructed the institute's president, Paul Morris, to sack four academics who criticised the reforms.

The bureau said in a statement last night Professor Li respected academic freedom and had never intervened in the institute's personnel matters. "The serious allegation was untrue and regrettable," it said.

In their letter to panel chairman Mr Tsang, the eight legislators suggested an investigation by a Legco committee, a commission of inquiry set up by the chief executive or an independent commission chaired by a judge. They said the allegations by Professor Luk were of a serious nature and of public concern.

One of the eight, Yeung Sum, claimed the "evil hand" of the government had penetrated academia. "Some officials will have to bear political responsibility if the allegations are proved true," he said.

Civic Party leader Audrey Eu Yuet-mee said legislators had a responsibility to look into the issue. "These allegations were not lightly made. On the other hand, they were denied by Professor Li, who presented himself as a victim," she said. As well as Ms Eu and Dr Yeung, the legislators include Cheung Man-kwong, Sin Chung-kai, Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, Lee Cheuk-yan, Leung Yiu-chung and Emily Lau Wai-hing.

In other reaction, University Education Concern Group spokeswoman Dora Choi Po-king said academics were becoming less willing to speak "because there may be implications for the allocation of resources".