11/20/2004, 00.00
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Bishop Zen calls for resistance against Beijing's influence in schools

In a letter to all Catholic schools, the Bishop of Hong Kong proposes 'passive resistance' to the government's ordinance that would give it total control over education and marginalise the Church.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) — Mgr Joseph Zen, Catholic Bishop of Hong Kong, has declared war on the government's attempt to control all of the Territory's schools, including those run by the Catholic Church. He did so by sending a letter to supervisors, managers and principals of all Catholic schools asking them to ignore the new Education (Amendment) Ordinance passed by Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo) on July 8.

In the letter, dated November 20, eve of Christ the King, Bishop Zen asserts that it is not his intention to clash with the government, but that he does want to protect educational freedom and "safeguard our Catholic tradition in education". In his opinion, freedom in education is threatened by the latest legislative measures passed by the LegCo but in fact put forward by Beijing.

The clarion call goes out to all Catholic schools to engage in passive resistance to stop the new management bodies the Hong Kong government wants to impose. According to the terms of the new ordinance, all subsidised schools must have an 'Incorporated Management Committee' (IMC) by the year 2010.

Although the Bishop writes that no school should set up its own IMC, he does call on all Catholic schools to strengthen their existing management committees (School Executive Committee) in order to encourage greater involvement of parents, teachers and alumni who share the same Catholic "vision and mission" in education. This way the Church and all those who share her vision can be ready for the inevitable showdown with the government.

Bishop Zen was 'Man of the Year' in 2003 because of his fervent battle in favour of democracy in Hong Kong. In his letter, he contends that new ordinance "has radically changed Hong Kong's educational system, which has been very effective for decades. It has demolished the partnership, and the relation of trust and collaboration between Sponsoring bodies and the government." Changes have been made that are "unilateral, revolutionary and indiscriminate" without any input from all those involved.

With the new ordinance, every school has to set up an IMC which becomes the government's real partner in education. As the agent responsible before the government for the school, the IMC becomes responsible for educational policies. It is supposed to be made up of representatives elected by teachers, parents, alumni and "other independent persons from society at large".

The government claims that this is a step towards democracy. For the Church this is an elegant way to have its own educational policies shunted aside and its responsibilities and power taken away.

For some missioners, it is "odd that the government, which has been blocking the process of democratisation of Hong Kong society and refusing universal suffrage in the Territory's elections, should be now so concerned about school democracy".

In Hong Kong, the Catholic Church runs some 300 schools known for their high quality education. Many public figures in the worlds of culture, politics and business were educated at Catholic schools. Many leaders in the pro-democracy movement are also alumni of Catholic schools.

Many suspect that the ordinance's real intent is to eliminate Catholic and democratic influence and plant pro-Beijing people in management positions.

In his letter, Bishop Zen states that with the new ordinance "we will have no guarantee that our schools can be operated according to their original vision and mission." He adds: "All the schools will be like government schools, directly under the supervision of the government, which under the pretence of fostering decentralisation, has actually laid down the conditions to centralise power in its own hands." For this reason, as Bishop of Hong Kong, Mgr Zen has decided that "no school should [. . .] have its Management Committee incorporated."

The ordinance allows all functioning schools (as of January 1, 2005) to wait till 2010 to set up the new management body. Hence, the civil disobedience the Bishop is calling for is within the law . . . at least until 2010. Yet, even for the new schools Bishop Zen promises resistance. "Should the government, in some cases, make and Incorporated Management Committee a condition for providing new school premises, we will have to discuss the matter and find a solution."

Other Christian communities, most notably the Anglican and Methodist Churches, agree with Bishop Zen's position. The Anglicans threaten even to shut down their schools if the government does not allow them to be fully responsible for education management.

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