Hong Kong?s market-driven education ?reforms? and insensitive comments by a top government official have enraged the city?s hard-pressed teachers.
By Laurence Coates On 22 January, over 10,000 teachers ? one-fifth of the entire teaching workforce ? took to the streets to protest against cost-cutting reforms and demand a cut in teachers? working hours. The demonstration, organised by the Hong Kong Professional Teachers? Union (HKPTU), followed the tragic suicides in early January of two teachers who leapt from their high-rise buildings. Their families have blamed the deaths on overwork and stress caused by the government?s reforms. As the HKPTU website (4 January) explained before the suicides occurred, ?teachers? workload has already been so immense that with their burnout rate so high, manifested in most recent survey findings, it is murderous to yet implement another [major reform].?
A bureaucrat fans the flames…
For reasons best known to herself, the furore surrounding the suicides prompted Permanent Secretary for Education and Manpower, Fanny Law, (Hong Hong?s top education bureaucrat) to utter the infamous words on 16 January that, ?If their death is related to the education reforms, why did only two teachers [commit suicide].?
Law was later forced to apologise for her statement, but has so far shown no signs of backtracking over the reforms themselves. The 10,000-strong demonstration increased the pressure on Law to resign, chanting ?Step Down Mrs Law? according to Apple Daily (Hong Kong).
In Hong Kong long working hours are endemic, bringing with them a host of health problems ? including a rising suicide rate. The intensified pressure of work affects even professionals and the middle layers in society. The HKPTU has produced figures showing that city teachers are working up to 70 hours a week since the introduction of the reforms, which increase the number and size of classes they teach. While the union demands smaller class sizes and increased resources, the government has squeezed education and most other sectors, with a 1% cut in education spending (to HK$48.7bn) and an overall reduction of 2.1%, in the current budget.
In fact, for the first time in more than five years, Hong Kong is heading for a budget surplus ? of HK$10bn (US$1.3bn) ? for the 2005-06 financial year. This is mainly due to higher than expected tax revenue, as the economy grew by around seven percent and property prices finally rebounded from their post-1997 slump. The government?s own budget forecasts last year envisioned a HK$10bn deficit. So, in other words, the government has HK$20bn more to play with than it projected when the budget was agreed.
Robbing the poor…
Despite this windfall, however, the unelected government of Chief Executive Donald Tsang has shown no signs of a Scrooge-like change of heart. On the contrary, Financial Secretary, Henry Tang, has repeated the government?s intention to reduce overall government spending, telling The Standard (Hong Kong), ?I don?t believe that there is any other government in this world that can spend less money year by year.?
This represents a further dramatic transfer of wealth from the majority to the wealthy minority. Government expenditure actually fell by 1.9 percent as a share of Hong Kong?s GDP, to 20.7 percent. This is less than half the level in most advanced capitalist countries ? even in the United States the comparable figure is 36 percent. Indeed, a budget deficit in Hong Kong greater than 3% of GDP is outlawed under Basic Law, the ?constitution? imposed on the territory by China?s decorative parliament, the National People?s Congress. This fiscal straitjacket, designed to foster ?big markets and small governments? is strongly approved by capitalist agencies internationally, showing their overlapping interests with the ?communist? Chinese regime. Standard & Poor, a US credit rating agency, recently upped Hong Kong?s rating from ?stable? to ?positive? ? the best rating in its history. S&P?s managing director, Paul Coughlin, explained the decision was ?largely due to the change in the deficit situation.?
The next step?
In other words, the squeeze on education spending and other public services translates into bigger profits for the capitalist fat cats. For teachers and other public sector workers the last few weeks hold important lessons. The 22 January demonstration was in may ways a landmark protest, but by itself was evidently not enough to force the government into a retreat over the reforms. With a budget surplus on the cards, there is even more reason for teachers to increase the demands on their union representatives for new action in the coming days and weeks, including strike action, which in all likelihood will now be necessary if the government is to be defeated. School students and other school personnel should take steps to support the teachers ? building support committees and taking an active part in future protests ? in a struggle which has major implications for the future of education and the wider public sector.