Hong Kong education officials have rejected accusations they are directing funds towards mainland-funded publishers via their recommended books for a new reading programme, despite an opposition lawmaker finding more than 70 per cent of the suggested titles were linked to a state-owned publishing conglomerate.
The Education Bureau hit back at the claims on Friday night, saying the bureau always recommended books based on professional considerations, not the publishers.
“There is no question of giving preferential treatment to a particular bookstore or books from a certain publisher,” a bureau spokesman said in a press release.
The response came after education lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen raised concerns over the bureau’s newly launched Summer Reading Programme-Gift Book Pilot Scheme, which is offering free books to about 600,000 primary and secondary students ahead of summer holiday to nurture good reading habits.
Under the scheme, which has an expected price tag of about HK$60 million (US$7.7 million), each student will be given one book. Schools are to pick books for their students from the bureau’s designated lists.
After examining the lists, Ip found that more than 500 titles, over 70 per cent, came from outlets linked to the city’s largest publishing group, Sino United Publishing (SUP), which is reportedly state-owned and controlled by Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong.
Ip noted only about 8 per cent of the books were from publishers in Taiwan and questioned the standards and reasoning used to create the bureau’s lists.
“Even putting aside political factors and only looking at it from the commercial procurement perspective, it’s still impossible to have the Education Bureau asking schools to buy books from a designated single organisation,” he said. “When a student reading scheme is suspected to involve a transfer of benefits in its handling, it’s not acceptable.”
Ip said schools have long been allowed to buy books in a flexible manner, and urged the bureau to let schools secure books for the scheme in the same manner.
He added that the recommended reading included only Chinese-language books, saying it totally neglected the need of local students who could not read Chinese.
Without naming Ip, the bureau criticised what it called a politician’s attempt “to politicise and demonise the promotion of reading with a standpoint of ‘China/Taiwan’.”
“[The politician] distort the facts to smear the Education Bureau with totally unfounded accusations of a transfer of benefits. The Education Bureau expresses utmost regret and condemns the move,” the spokesman said.
He argued that book procurement takes time and the printing of books as well as the logistics of having them delivered were difficult to arrange.
“To enable students to receive printed books before the summer holiday and enjoy leisure reading during the holiday, a pragmatic approach was adopted to include only local Chinese-language books,” he said.
He added that book publishers had different market shares and focused on different themes, making it understandable some would feature more books in the programme than others.
“The acceptance of a gift cannot be forced. As [the bureau] explained to the representatives of school councils, schools can choose not to join the pilot scheme,” he added.
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