Why low-key Hong Kong exams body is scrambling for answers after furore over history question on Sino-Japanese relations

Natalie Wong

A low-profile examination body in Hong Kong has been swept up in a political storm after the Education Bureau demanded it withdraw a history-paper question that had drawn a furious rebuke from Beijing over its one-sided depiction of Sino-Japanese relations in the first half of the last century.

The unprecedented request has raised questions about the body’s oft-stated independence.

Officials have argued that the call to scrap the question was a professional judgment and not a political one, stressing the government was entitled to ensure the quality of education in the city was maintained.

But lawmakers and academics have expressed concerns that it could jeopardise the integrity of the internationally recognised Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA). They said the 43-year-old institution risked becoming increasingly susceptible to external pressure because of its board’s governance and growing financial dependence on the government.

The DSE exams are run by the HKEAA. Photo: Handout

Amid the raging debate, however, HKEAA secretary general So Kwok-sang has conceded that the exam body’s autonomy was not an unbridled one. It is ultimately accountable to the chief executive, who appoints its council.

On Wednesday, the authority was still in discussions with Education Bureau officials to decide how to follow its demand that the question be invalidated, which would affect some 5,200 candidates who sat for the history paper of the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE), the university entrance exams.

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So conceded the city’s leader had the ultimate say on the matter regardless of how their discussions transpired.

“Yes, according to the law,” he said, soon after Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said she would not hesitate to use her power to get the authority to invalidate the question.

Carrie Lam says she won’t evade the issue. Photo: Robert Ng

The debacle began last week after history students were asked whether they agreed Japan “did more good than harm to China” between 1900 and 1945.

Apart from using their own knowledge, students were required to answer the question with reference to materials provided – two excerpts adapted from two documents from the early 20th century.

The government said the question was misleading, as it had failed to provide information detailing Japan’s invasion of China in the later years of that period, and that there was no room for discussion on the topic given the atrocities committed by Japan during World War II.

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Criticism from local pro-establishment figures, state media and Beijing’s foreign ministry grew louder with each passing day. State news agency Xinhua said in a commentary that the question was “poisonous” and warned that if it were not pulled from the exam, the “rage of all Chinese sons and daughters would not be able to be settled”.

Set up in 1977, the HKEAA took over the job of the colonial Education Department to organise exams, and has since grown into a behemoth that handles more than 200 tests in the city every year.

Apart from the flagship DSE exam, it is also responsible for a vast range of professional, vocational and music assessments, drawing substantial revenues from these tests.

The Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority was set up in 1977. Photo: May Tse

Over the years, the body established mechanisms with confidentiality protocols that ensured professionals who set the exam papers were free from outside interference, and it guarded closely against leaks, including to the Education Bureau.

But its operation is governed by an overarching Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority Ordinance, which grants the chief executive the power she asserted on Tuesday.

“Until this moment, I had not intervened in the incident. I didn’t [tell] the examination authority what they should do. I didn’t invoke the power granted to the chief executive under the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority Ordinance to take action,” Lam said.

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“But I won’t evade the issue if I need to safeguard the quality and aims of education, as well as to protect students one day.”

She said the bureau had an inescapable responsibility to implement the education system in Hong Kong.

“For someone to think that when the examination authority deals with an important element of the education, which is the exam, it can completely ignore the goal and target of education and refuse to accept our bureau’s view, I think this is a huge problem,” Lam said.

So Kwok-sang conceded that the city’s leader had the ultimate say on the matter. Photo: Sam Tsang

Section 13 of the ordinance states that the city’s leader may give the authority “directions of a general character” on “matters appearing to the chief executive to affect the public interest”. And the authority shall “comply with any directions given by the chief executive”.

Associate law professor Dr Stephen Thomson of City University said the power the section granted to the city’s leader was “broadly framed”. But it also came with a caveat, he said.

“The chief executive would have to exercise her power in a way that did not violate any of the grounds of judicial review, for example, if motivated by what is called an ‘improper purpose’ or an ‘irrelevant consideration’,” he said, without elaborating on what these scenarios might entail.

Ho Hon-kuen, director of the Centre of National History Education (Hong Kong), said the HKEAA, like many other administrative bodies of the government, was never designed to have “absolute independence” – and that getting bogged down in questions over its autonomy was unhelpful.

“The focus is on the question, which is against humanity,” he said.

Ho said the chief executive would only need to take action when the body “failed to confront its own problems”, which had nothing to do with its independence.

HKEAA chairman Samuel Yung works in the insurance sector. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun of the University of Hong Kong’s law faculty urged the authority to respect its established mechanisms and the professionalism of its staff or risk gravely damaging the reputation of the DSE, a qualification administered since 2012 to replace the HKCEE and A-level exams.

As of August last year, the DSE is being recognised by 284 overseas higher education institutions, 112 mainland ones and 140 in Taiwan.

The HKEAA is governed by a 17-member council which includes the authority’s secretary general, school principals, professionals and business figures. Also on the council are senior officials from the bureau and other education bodies. They are either appointed by the chief executive, nominated by the Heads of Universities Committee or are ex officio members.

The authority’s chairman is Samuel Yung Wing-ki, who is executive district director of insurer AIA International and serving a three-year term that ends in 2021. He is also a member of the mainland’s top political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Education lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen – who had been singled out for criticism by Xinhua, which said he did not deserve to be a teacher and did not represent the sector – claimed the composition of the council given Yung’s association with Beijing was problematic even before the current fiasco.

Ip Kin-yuen (seated, centre) said the composition of the council was problematic even before the current fiasco. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

The self-financed exams body has also become increasingly reliant on the government for support.

It has struggled financially since 2015 in sustaining the administration of the DSE. The number of candidates enrolled dropped from more than 73,000 in 2012 to about 52,500 this year. The shrinking population of the 15-19 age group in recent years was behind the slide.

Running the DSE exam alone led to a deficit of about HK$70 million (US$49 million) in 2018. That contributed to an overall deficit of about HK$10 million for the authority.

In her 2018 policy address, the chief executive announced that the government would provide the HKEAA with non-recurrent funding of HK$360 million to support its operations for four years until 2022.

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