News that the largest teachers union in Hong Kong will disband under pressure from the Chinese Communist Party reminded me of the old joke—dating back to at least the 1980s, when Poland’s shipyard workers helped defeat the Soviet Union—that the definition of an American neoconservative is someone who loves labor unions, so long as the unions are in enemy countries.
After a year-and-a-half-long pandemic in which U.S. teachers unions have been vilified—in some cases justifiably—as obstacles to reopening schools for in-person learning, the news from Hong Kong deserves attention. It is a reminder that, as exasperating as independent teachers unions can sometimes be, the alternative—life without them—is far worse. Unions, for all their flaws, serve as a restraint on what would otherwise be Communist-style unchecked government power.
The Chinese Communist Party has been moving aggressively to assert control in Hong Kong, a former British colony that had maintained its own rule of law, democracy, and free press. The government arrested protesters and caused the closure of a newspaper. The pressure on the teachers union is part of that crackdown; a Voice of America dispatch noted that Chinese state media had called the union a “malignant tumor” that should be eradicated.
In an August 10 letter to members of the 95,000-member Professional Teachers’ Union, the union’s president, Fung Wai Wah, wrote, “it is deplorable that the social and political environment has undergone very radical changes and we are forced to ponder for the future, particularly when the pressure of the recent drastic development is so immense.”
He called the outcome “very saddening” and “a no choice, unwanted, and difficult decision.” The letter said the union will stop recruiting new members, shut down its medical clinics, refund dues to members who recently renewed, and “no longer comment on and participate in social affairs.”
“It’s extremely disturbing,” the president of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong, Ellen Bork, told Education Next. She said Hong Kong’s free labor movement—as distinct from Communist-controlled unions—has played an important role in the effort to defend the autonomy China promised Hong Kong would enjoy under its rule, and to preserve and expand Hong Kong’s democracy. “This is the Chinese Communist Party’s imposition of its mainland, communist political culture on Hong Kong. The Party can’t tolerate independent organizations of any kind,” she said.
The National Education Association, the largest U.S. teachers union, referred an inquiry to Education International, whose general secretary, David Edwards, said in a statement to Education Next that the attacks on the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union “illustrate the importance of an educated, organized, and active citizenry to counter autocratic forces.” He said the union’s members “are the brave, beating heart of democracy and independent thought pumping the lifeblood of education throughout their society.”
The American Federation of Teachers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next.