“I want him to grow up in an environment with enough freedom to do what he wants to do and not be restricted by some invisible threat,” said Sarah, who requested CNN use a pseudonym for fear of being targeted by authorities.
In June, Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong that bans secession, subversion, terrorist activities and collusion with foreign powers. The law was passed to quell the pro-democracy movement that destabilized the financial hub last year, but its reach went far beyond policing protests to criminalizing certain conversations, political positions, publications and even social media posts.
In Hong Kong’s classrooms, it is now unclear what can legally be taught or discussed.
The Education Bureau has ordered schools to remove books and teaching materials that could violate the law. Administrators can call the police if someone insults the Chinese anthem, which must be played in schools on certain holidays. In September, a student who displayed a photo with the slogan “Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now” during class was suspended for a week.
Sarah’s move isn’t just for her son: she is a teacher in Hong Kong. The English Schools Foundation, an international education organization, released new guidelines in September for teachers, seen by CNN, which concluded that the classroom “is not a safe space” for discussion or debate.
It advised teachers to “always be aware of how what you are teaching could be interpreted/misinterpreted by others.” The former Chief Executive of Hong Kong has even posted on his Facebook page personal details of teachers charged over professional misconduct during the protest last year.
In Hong Kong, Sarah owns an apartment and a car — both rare privileges in a city where buying a home is expensive and taking public transport is the norm. But she’s prepared to give it all up for an uncertain life away from family and friends.
“We will do any kind of job. Be a cleaner, do the dishes, be a cashier,” she said. “Because it’s the value we place on the freedom that’s more important than the materialistic life we have.”
“We are sacrificing a lot to move. It will be expensive,” she said. “We want our children to study in a country that offers more freedom.”
Authorities did not give details about the classroom discussion, but local media reported that the teacher showed students a TV documentary, featuring pro-independence figure Andy Chan. They were then asked to answer questions from a worksheet about freedom of speech and proposals for Hong Kong independence. In response to the incident, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said “illegal ideas” and “pro-independence” concepts cannot exist in schools.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Regina Ip says the changes to education will teach students a more balanced history of China, rather than stifle conversation.
“The basic purpose is to bring up our children to at least have proper respect for our country,” Ip said. “I have received complaints about teachers using the classroom as a vehicle of the political beliefs, even stirring up hatred of police, of the Chinese government, of the people of China, portraying them as dirty, backward, repressive.”
That was the last time the students of Hong Kong won against Beijing.
Since 2012, one of Beijing’s primary aims has been to create a generation of patriotic and loyal Hong Kong youth, according to Lester Shum, onetime deputy secretary-general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students and now an elected lawmaker. He said the current changes could create a new generation who will be “totally brainwashed, not knowing about the wrongdoings from the authorities.”
But Shum says it’s unclear how successful those aims will be, since students can still access free information from the internet and the press.
Today, few young people within mainland China know about the Tiananmen massacre, or pro-democracy protests, because the event is censored from the Chinese internet and books, and is not taught in schools. Many of those who know about the incident believe in the official version that the crackdown was necessary for China’s stability and rise.
But in Hong Kong it will take far longer to “brainwash the younger generation,” He said. “Hong Kong has a strong civil society,” she explained.
He is the author of “Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China.” For years, she taught seminars on the movement in American universities before moving to Hong Kong last year. She was looking forward to attending the June 4 commemoration for the first time in Hong Kong, the only place on Chinese soil where an annual vigil is held. But authorities banned the event in June for the first time in 30 years, citing coronavirus concerns. Many fear it will never take place again. A smaller crowd of people still gathered in Victoria Park this year, leading to the arrest of dozens of democracy activists who were accused of knowingly taking part in an “unauthorized assembly.”
He still teaches her students about the Tiananmen massacre and historical episodes deemed taboo by the Communist Party, but fears of repercussions have followed her throughout her career. In July, the University of Hong Kong fired Benny Tai, a prominent law professor and pro-democracy activist, who said academic staff in the city “are no longer free to make controversial statements.” Local media have reported instances of professors with pro-democracy views whose contracts have been denied.
“We never know what the red line is, that’s the root of censorship and self-censorship,” Rowena He said.
“Those in power can easily manipulate history and erase memory,” He said. “I try my best to speak out the truth — that’s the resistance.”
Some of Rowena’s students plan to leave Hong Kong after graduation. One of them, Tyler, who asked to use a pseudonym to avoid repercussions, said he will move to the UK to pursue graduate studies in Chinese history, because of the “censorship problems” in Hong Kong. “The narrative in Hong Kong and China is quite controlled,” he said.
“Under the security law, many of us are afraid of being spied on by police,” Tyler said. “So now we are quite worried, but I still saw a lot of students who are willing to sacrifice themselves.”
Some students are determined to stay in Hong Kong. One of Tyler’s classmates plans to become a primary school teacher, so she can keep alive the memory of important events, such as the 1989 crackdown.
“We need someone to continue to teach the next generation and continue to tell them what is right and wrong, so not just let them to be brainwashed by the government,” said the student, who didn’t want to be named for fear of being targeted by authorities.
But Sarah, the teacher who is moving her family to the UK, does not want to wait to see what happens to the next generation. Her biggest fear isn’t what’s happening in Hong Kong currently, but what could happen in decades to come.
By leaving Hong Kong now, she’s hoping her son won’t have to face a difficult decision in the future about whether to abandon the only city he knows.
CNN’s Vanesse Chan also contributed to this report.