Back to school Why education will be just one test for next Hong Kong leader

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Is it something unusual for a senior Beijing official in Hong Kong to visit a local school?

The central government’s liaison office last Friday posted a short write-up and photo on its official website showing its deputy director,Tan Tieniu, visiting St Paul’s Convent School in Causeway Bay. Tan was reported to have had “discussions and exchanges” with teachers and students on matters such as the development of the school, education reform and interaction with the mainland.

Ip Kin-yuen, the pan-democratic lawmaker from the education constituency, adopted an open attitude by saying it was fine for liaison office staff to learn more about the city’s education as long as they did not actually give direct instructions to schools.

What Ip said makes sense. But it also shows how sensitive education issues can be in the current political climate. It was in fact not the first time for Tan or his colleagues to visit local schools and universities, although these activities were usually kept relatively low key.

There is always a fine line between enhancing communication and creating a negative perception of Beijing interfering with local education. Under the “one country, two systems formula”, Hong Kong maintains its own education system with its own curriculum.

Tan, 52, is a former scientist who was vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He is also a cyber security expert, having spent 13 years in the UK for his PhD studies and research. When he was parachuted into Hong Kong last December, it was widely seen as Beijing’s latest effort to have a Western-educated academic reach out to the city’s rather liberal education sector and professionals.

Two decades after the city’s handover to Chinese rule, Beijing has come to realise, more than ever, the importance of education in what it sees as “the return of Hongkongers’ hearts”.

Meanwhile, the complexity of the city’s decades-long quest for education reform has made the subject a perpetually thorny issue for any administration.

Therefore, plenty of eyebrows were raised when Japan-based singer-turned-writer Agnes Chan Miling was reported to be a possible candidate for the post of education minister in the incoming administration. Chan was courageous enough to tell the media she was “willing to serve in any post”, but clarified that it was wrongly reported she had been approached by chief executive-elect Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

Reactions were mixed. Some were highly appreciative of her achievements – after all, she received her PhD in education from Stanford University and her three sons also became alumni at the elite institution.

Married to a Japanese husband and living in Japan as a Hong Kong Chinese, she once bravely showed during a TV appearance pictures of the massacre that took place in Nanking, now Nanjing, which made her the target of attacks by right-wingers.

However, there was no shortage of scepticism about her political and governing abilities. Some also pointed out that educating one’s own children and handling education policy in government were two completely different things.

Tian Feilong, a mainland academic specialising in Hong Kong studies, went a step further to raise concerns about her decades-long stay in Japan. He questioned her understanding of local and mainland affairs, pointing out that the city’s next education chief needed to tackle many sensitive issues including national education.

It’s tempting to jump to conclusions, but keep in mind that this is the season for intense political gossip and speculation, with trial balloons flying all around town under one overriding theme: who will join Lam’s incoming cabinet?

Hong Kong’s new leader earlier admitted that she was having a “nightmare” trying to put together her team because potential candidates were reluctant to expose themselves to the public criticism and pressure that has become part and parcel of holding a top government job these days. She was worried she might not even have a full line-up of the right people by July 1, when her administration is sworn in.

Understandably, there will be more mixed feedback as more names for different key posts continue to surface in the coming weeks. All of these are tough jobs that’s for sure, and those who accept them will have to show political wisdom and skill to cater to both Beijing and Hongkongers.