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Unions square up to Beijing

HONG KONG. Yojana Sharma reports on how the 1997 reunification is affecting teacher trade unionists

At least one of Hong Kong's leading teacher trade unionists expects to be imprisoned or expelled when the colony is handed back to the Chinese in 1997.

Hong Kong's teacher unions are among the most politicised in the colony. Some of the most active and outspoken politicians cut their teeth in them and they should play a key part in the island's political life after 1997.

Beijing's treatment of the heads of the Professional Teachers' Union, Szeto Wah and Cheung Man-Kwong, elected legislators from Hong Kong's Democratic Party, caused a furore last month. Both were barred from Beijing's consultations with professional groups because they opposed Beijing's plans to scrap Hong Kong's legislature and install a temporary law-making body.

The PTU is one of the largest and most independent unions - 62,000 of Hong Kong's 70,000 teachers belong to it. Analysts say the PTU and its leadership is too powerful to be sidelined by China.

Many believe Mr Szeto and Mr Cheung will either be imprisoned or expelled by the Chinese authorities after 1997. Mr Szeto is said to be preparing for it. But the PTU will continue to be a force. Already there are some who believe the union should adopt a more conciliatory stance towards Beijing.

"We have to reflect what teachers want. They want a smooth transition and we seek every possibility to achieve this," said Mr Au. "We have never blocked the way for communication with China, but we will not lose ground or forsake our principles for the sake of communication with Beijing."

As there is also a pro-Beijing Federation of Education Workers headed by Tsang Yok Sing and Cheng Kai Nam, teachers are often pitted against teachers in the political arena.

Neither the PTU nor the federation deny the political nature of their mission. "Teachers have to teach kids right from wrong and tell them what is justice. The PTU was founded in 1974 to defend the rights of teachers and also to pay attention to justice in society," said Au Pak-kuen, PTU vice-president.

The federation was established around the same time by those involved in the leftist schools in Hong Kong. Such schools were founded by Communist sympathisers, and the curriculum tried to mirror China's ideology while maintaining Hong Kong education standards. "Because the federation was started by very well-known figures in the leftist schools, as soon as it was founded everyone knew it was pro-Beijing," said Tsang Yok-Sing, a founder member.

The federation is less exclusive now, but it still takes its cue from Beijing. "Core members feel they have a special mission to ensure education in Hong Kong will evolve to meet the needs of a new era. We often advocate ideas like patriotic education," said Mr Tsang.

The high profile of the PTU's leaders in the pro-democracy movement - Mr Szeto and Mr Cheung were both branded subversive by Beijing in 1989 - has coloured the PTU's activities. Members say the fight for democracy is deep-rooted and is not just a reflection of the union's leadership.

"Whenever the PTU has to face a choice between democracy and dictatorship, we have no choice but to choose democracy. Whenever we choose democracy we are forced to stand against authority and our stand becomes political," said Mr Au.

The main focus of the PTU is, of course, education though it does also take up other issues.

"Social issues we take up as we can. We have to make a distinction in our work," said Mr Au.

The federation makes no such distinction. "The federation is very much tied to the political ups and downs in China," said Mr Tsang.

Since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre which launched the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, the federation and PTU have drifted further apart. The federation, after some hesitation, supported the Beijing government, while the PTU came out against it. But they are not exactly rivals and there is considerable cross-membership between the two.

Teachers who were members of the federation because of their ideological stance also joined the PTU which, as a powerful body, could protect their professional interests in Hong Kong. But with the 1997 handover just a year away, more PTU members are now joining the federation, doubling its membership to 10,000, in just three years.

"Ever since the PTU took up an antagonistic attitude towards Beijing (because of the Tiananmen Square massacre) the federation has always tried to play a bigger role in representing Hong Kong teachers," said Mr Tsang, who admits the federation is recruiting PTU members.

Many of the new members are not as ideological as the old stalwarts but they feel the federation will be closer to the Beijing leadership and will be better able to represent their interests to the authorities. That kind of relationship with Beijing is seen as increasingly remote for the PTU leadership.

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