Four Years After Enacting National Security Law: Professional Autonomy Eroded in Social Work and Education Sectors

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Four years after implementing the National Security Law in Hong Kong, human rights and freedoms have suffered substantial setbacks. Further to political parties, trade unions, and civil society, the Hong Kong government extended its control over several professional sectors last year. Last month, the Executive Council, the government advisory body, hastily approved the 2024 Social Workers Registration (Amendment) Bill, which proposed restructuring of the Social Workers Registration Board to allow government appointees to command a majority and the immediate deregistration of social workers, undermining professional autonomy. The Education Bureau requires all newly appointed teachers to pass the Basic and National Security Law tests. The Bureau also advised schools to assess candidates’ ability to inspire patriotism during recruitment.

Social Worker Licensing Body Overhauled to Include Government-appointed Majority

Under the guise of national security, the authorities have cracked down on human rights across various sectors and levels of society. Social workers have been the latest targets of this sweeping crackdown. On May 10, Sun Yuk-han, Secretary for Labour and Welfare, listed the Social Workers Registration Board’s ‘five sins’ on social media. He slammed the board for not establishing a mechanism to prevent individuals convicted of national security offences from becoming registered social workers despite a two-year-old amendment to the Supplementary Regulations of the Social Workers Registration Ordinance prohibiting such appointments. Sun also attacked the board’s decision to vote a social worker (Chen Hung-sau) onto a panel of reserve members for the board’s disciplinary committee even though she faced a rioting charge in court at the time, accusing the board of straying significantly from the law. The government stepped up its action to assert control over the board, submitting the revised 2024 Social Workers Registration Bill to the Executive Council for approval just four days after Sun criticised the board on social media. Only three Bills Committee meetings were held to scrutinise the bill, and the bill is set to resume its second reading debate on July 3, implying that the entire legislative procedure for this legislation with broad implications took barely over a month.

The proposed amendments to the legislation include restructuring the Social Workers Registration Board and increasing its membership from 15 to 27 with a government-appointed majority. Board members must take an oath pledging allegiance to the city and the Basic Law. Under the existing regulations, the 15 board members comprise 8 elected social workers, 6 chosen by the Chief Executive, and 1 representing the Director of Social Welfare. Elected members constitute the majority. The new provisions would substantially increase the number of government-appointed members to 17, but the 8 elected social worker positions would remain unchanged. The remaining two members would be public officers from the Social Welfare Department, including the Director and a social worker. With this restructuring, the share of elected members would drop from 53% to less than 30%, giving the government strong control over the registration board and undermining professional autonomy within the social work sector.

Permanent Social Workers De-registration for Committing NSL Offences

The new legislation also introduces provisions allowing the Social Workers Registration Board to promptly remove the registration of social workers convicted of serious crimes, including national security offences. These individuals would be permanently removed from the registration records, and any written appeals would be denied. Under the existing Social Workers Registration Ordinance, if a social worker committed an offence related to ‘endangering national security’ (as listed in Appendix 2), there was an exception that allowed the individual to continue working as a social worker if all board members unanimously agreed. However, under the proposed amendment, persons convicted of national security offences would be permanently barred from registering as social workers, even if all board members agreed to retain their registration. (Seven board members have resigned since the government proposed these amendments, representing half of the elected members. Among them, social work scholar Lam Chiu-wah cited resigned because he was dissatisfied with the government’s approach to the legislation.)

The government’s blow to the social work sector stemmed from its dissatisfaction over appointing a social worker who is currently facing riot charges in court to the Disciplinary Committee’s reserve panel. The unnamed target of government criticism is ‘frontline social worker’ Chen Hung-sau, who was involved in the Wan Chai riots on August 31, 2019. Although the charges against her were withdrawn due to a lack of evidence in September 2020, the Department of Justice success-fully appealed the riot charge in December 2021, resulting in a retrial scheduled for the end of this year. According to records, Chen ran for the Disciplinary Committee’s reserve post in October 2020 after the charges were dismissed. She remains innocent, yet the government seems determined to eliminate her without due process.

Newly Appointed Teachers Must pass NSL Test

Since implementing the National Security Law, Hong Kong’s education sector has faced ongoing suppression. Starting with the 2023/24 academic year, the Education Bureau requires that all newly hired teachers (including those new to the profession or transferring schools) in public schools, directly subsidised program schools, and kindergartens participating in educational programs to pass tests on the Basic Law and the National Security Law. The Education Bureau notified all schools in August 2023, emphasising the importance of qualifications, expertise, work experience, teaching enthusiasm, and passing the Basic Law and National Security Law tests when employing teachers. Additionally, schools should assess candidates’ abilities to cultivate students with moral and intellectual qualities, love for the country and family, and a global perspective.

In the 2022 Policy Address, the government also proposed that public funds be used to subsidise study tours in China for newly hired teachers and teachers promoted in public schools. According to Legislative Council papers, from April 2023 to January 2024, authorities organised 19 learning tours in which 2,181 teachers participated. The latest arrangement, effective with the 2023/24 academic year, requires all public school teachers who were promoted to higher positions after September 1, 2023, to complete the ‘Promoted Teachers Mainland Learning Tour’ organised by the Education Bureau within their first two years of promotion to meet the promotion training requirements.

Regarding current teachers, the Education Bureau introduced the ‘Code of Professional Conduct for Teachers’ at the end of 2022. It specifies that teachers should not engage in activities that violate the National Security Law and other laws. Teachers should not promote speech that violates social order, and they are encouraged to report students who break the law. Teachers who commit major professional misconduct cases can risk lifelong suspension. Punitive measures such as suspension are used to silence educators. According to Education Bureau data, 11 teachers’ registrations were cancelled last year for offences such as common assault, illegal assembly, and rioting.

Over the last four years, the authorities have weaponised ‘national security’ to crush opposition. Whether in major or little incidents, regardless of context or subject, anyone who voices dissenting views risks being labelled a threat to national security. Not only would they lose their jobs, but they would also face arrest and incarceration. Hong Kong’s success has always been built on stable and efficient professional sectors, but now, with rampant authoritarianism, politics has trumped expertise, and outsiders dictate to insiders. Ultimately, the entire society faces the consequences, tarnishing Hong Kong’s century-old reputation.