Students at the Heung To Middle School in Hong Kong. Image: Youtube

The Hong Kong Professional Teacher’s Union (PTU), a 48-year-old non-government organization founded by late pro-democracy lawmaker Szeto Wah, announced on Tuesday that it was disbanding after state media described it as a “tumor” that must be rooted out.

Chinese state mouthpieces including Xinhua News Agency and the People’s Daily urged Hong Kong police on Wednesday to investigate the PTU’s alleged “illegal acts”, even though it had already announced it would discontinue its operations.

The state reports said the PTU should not be able to get away with any law-breaking as it had incited teachers to participate in violent protests and spread “poisonous thoughts” into schools.

Other pressure groups including the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) and the Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU) said they could be Beijing’s next targets of suppression, but added they would continue to operate in Hong Kong for now.

Founded in 1973, the PTU was the largest union representing a single profession in Hong Kong. With more than 96,000 members from the education sector, the organization was one of three activist groups established by Szeto, who passed away at 79 in 2011.

Tear gas is fired in a pitched battle between protesters and riot police at the Chinese University of Hong Kong on November 12, 2019. Photo: AFP

The other two are the Democratic Party and the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China. Both are now on the edge of disbanding or being crushed by Beijing.

In his autobiography, Szeto admitted he joined the Chinese New Democracy Youth League in 1947 and in 1949 founded the Hok Yau Club, formerly called the Hok Yau Dancing Club, a cultural group for students, with some underground Chinese Communist Party members.

Between 1971 and 1973, he led 12 education groups to oppose the British colonial government’s plan to slash teachers’ salaries. After several strikes, the government compromised. In 1973, Szeto formed the PTU and he spent several decades expanding the union by opening supermarkets and organizing activities for its members.

In 1989, Szeto founded the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China to support the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. In 1990, he co-founded the United Democrats of Hong Kong, which merged with Meeting Point to form the Democratic Party in 1994.

Since then, Szeto was known as a “whip” of the Democratic Party.

The Hong Kong Alliance, the PTU and the Democratic Party were the core of the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong before Beijing imposed the National Security Law on June 30, 2020. In June this year, the Hong Kong Alliance failed to organize the annual June 4th vigil for the second year due to national security reasons.

An internal conflict broke out recently in the Democratic Party about whether the party should join the coming Legislative Council elections in December. Founding members including vice-chairperson Lee Wing-tat said the elections were tailor-made for the pro-establishment camp, but some young members were nonetheless keen to contest.

On August 6, Lee departed Hong Kong for the United Kingdom.

On July 16, Xia Baolong, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO), said during an online forum in Beijing to celebrate the first anniversary of the National Security Law’s implementation in Hong Kong that anti-China rabble-rousers should be excluded from its governing system by screening candidates in the coming three elections.

He said people who administer Hong Kong must be staunch “patriots.”

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Xia mentioned “five tasks” for Hong Kong to complete in the coming year.

Those include passing legislation of the Basic Law’s Article 23 to safeguard national security, handling cases related to alleged violations of the National Security Law, strengthening the guidance, supervision and management of schools, universities, media and social media companies, promoting the importance of national security in society and completing the three elections.

A barge with banners that read ‘Celebrate the National Security Law’ in Victoria Harbour on the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain in Hong Kong on July 1, 2020. Photo: AFP / Anthony Wallace

On July 31, the People’s Daily said in an article that the PTU stood against education and professionalism and had been encouraging anti-China activities that hurt Hong Kong.

It accused the union of encouraging teachers to stir up trouble and teaching children to violate laws, particularly during the anti-national education protests in 2011, the illegal Occupy Central movement in 2014 and the anti-extradition law protests in 2019.

It said the PTU and the Hong Kong Alliance, as well as the Civil Human Rights Front, which organized the annual July 1 march in the past, should be investigated and punished under the National Security Law.

On the same day, Hong Kong’s Education Bureau announced it would stop working with the PTU. It said the union’s remarks and actions in recent years had not been in line with the education profession, describing it as “no different than a political group” due to its participation with the Civil Human Rights Front and the Hong Kong Alliance.

The bureau said it would no longer hold meetings with the union and its representatives, nor would they consult the group regarding educational topics.

On August 2, Lam accused the PTU of hijacking the education sector and leaving people with negative images of Hong Kong’s teachers.

“The PTU made use of their political stance to override the professionalism of education, allowing political issues, anti-government and anti-central government sentiments to enter our schools,” Lam said, adding that “everyone can see” what the union did during the anti-government protests of 2019.

The PTU announced last week that it was setting up a unit to help teachers understand Chinese history, culture and national affairs, a gesture widely seen as an olive branch to authorities. It said it had quit the Civil Human Rights Front in March and the Hong Kong Alliance in June.

Textbooks for Hong Kong children have been ‘adjusted’ by authorities. Photo: AFP / Peter Parks

However, the PTU said Tuesday it was disbanding outright. PTU president Fung Wai-wah admitted the union had explored all ways to continue its services and operations but they did not work.

Ivan Choy, a senior lecturer at the department of government and public administration, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told RTHK that the government’s decision to cut ties with the PTU had sparked concern that authorities were “extending their suppression” from political parties to civil society.

“If the major problem is that the PTU has been politicized, and was not performing the function of a professional body, you can also put the same kind of blame on other organizations in Hong Kong, such as trade unions and other professional bodies, such as the law professional bodies,” Choy said.

On Wednesday, HKJA chairman Ronson Chan said he’s concerned that his group could be targeted next by Beijing. Chan said the HKJA had no plans to disband, insisting it has always been trying to defend press freedom and the labor rights of journalists.

CTU, a pro-democracy labor group, also said it would insist on speaking up for grassroots workers despite the adversities faced by unionists and civil society at large.

The People’s Daily said Wednesday that the PTU had caused a worse impact than opposition political parties and that justice was manifested now that the union is “swept into the trash heap of history.”

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