Attend flag ceremony or miss key math exam, Hong Kong student told

A Hong Kong school forced at least one high school examination candidate to stand through a lengthy flag-raising ceremony and official speech to mark China’s “National Security Education Day” right before their exam, threatening not to let him enter the examination hall if he didn’t comply, according to a prominent education blogger.

Staff at the Shun Tak Fraternal Association Lee Shau Kee College in Kwai Chung told the student, who had arrived early to take his crucial Diploma of Secondary Education, or DSE, math exam on Monday, that he wouldn’t be allowed into the exam hall if he didn’t first attend the formal ceremony in the school’s covered playground, the @edulancet Instagram account, which covers educational issues, reported.

Yeung Wing Yu, who runs the account, told RFA Cantonese that he had confirmed that at least one student had been treated this way, and had received more generalized complaints about the incident from several more.

He said the school’s actions came against a background of rampant politicization of Hong Kong’s schools.

“When everything is politicized, even students who are purely there to take their exams aren’t exempt,” Yeung said. “The fundamental manifestation of this politicization is that everything must be done for show.”

“The flag-raising ceremony is a show … forcing DSE candidates to take part in these activities is a part of that show,” he said. 

‘Patriotic education’

Flag-raising ceremonies have been mandatory in Hong Kong schools since 2021, amid an ongoing ideological crackdown following the 2019 pro-democracy protests.

In a written reply to RFA Cantonese, S.T.F.A. Lee Shau Kee College confirmed that a flag-raising ceremony had taken place in school that day.

A Young Pioneer salutes during the weekly flag-raising ceremony at the East Experimental School in Shanghai Nov. 5, 2012. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

But it denied that students had been threatened with disciplinary action if they didn’t attend the ceremony, and said that nobody had been denied entry to the examination hall.

“The examination went ahead without a hitch,” the statement said.

The city’s Education Bureau also didn’t deny the incident. Instead, it said that no one had been denied access to the examination hall during the incident.

The Bureau also declined to clarify whether exam candidates are generally expected to attend patriotic ceremonies on the same day as their exams.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party is moving to step up “patriotic education” in schools, universities and religious institutions across the country, including in Hong Kong, in a move likely designed to quash potential political challenges to party leader Xi Jinping’s authoritarian rule.

Patriotic education is closely linked with an ongoing emphasis on “national security education,” which encourages people to inform on each other, and regards public dissent and peaceful political opposition as a potential threat to the authorities.

Institutions across Hong Kong marked “National Security Education Day” on Monday with lavish flag-waving ceremonies, complete in some cases with goose-stepping officers in uniform and military bands playing rousing communist marching tunes.

According to the @edulancet post, Hong Kong had previously adopted a policy of having students take their exams at a school other than the one they attend in a bid to minimize cheating opportunities.

High pressure exams

But the government has reversed this policy in recent years, meaning that staff in schools see students as needing to comply with school rules rather than purely as exam candidates on some of the highest-pressure days of their young lives.

“There are a lot of formulas they have to memorize for that math exam,” Yeung said. “Everyone was using the time [before the exam] to memorize them, yet suddenly they were forced to use that time on this event.”

“A lot of candidates thought that was extremely inappropriate.”

The S.T.F.A. Lee Shau Kee College in Kwai Chung, Hong Kong, Nov. 29, 2009. (Chong Fat via Wikipedia)

He said the problem wouldn’t exist if candidates had continued to sit their exams, which have a huge impact on their future academic progress, at schools they don’t attend.

He said the more stringent rules had changed back as the Hong Kong authorities prepared to open up DSE test centers at schools in mainland China.

The furor comes amid growing international concern over tight controls on freedom of expression in Hong Kong, which was promised the continuation of its freedoms after the 1997 handover to Chinese rule.

A British government report on Hong Kong published on Monday found that “political opposition has been all but eliminated” in the city since China imposed the 2020 National Security Law there, adding: “Dissent has been criminalized. Civil society has been marginalized.”

It said a second national security law known as Article 23 and passed on March 23, 2024 was “incompatible with international human rights law.”

In a foreword to the report, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron called on Hong Kong to “reinstate and preserve the high degree of autonomy it previously enjoyed, including the rights and freedoms of all who live and work there.”

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.