Lawyers for a Hong Kong student challenging the scrapping of a history exam question that asked if “Japan did more good than harm to China” in the first half of the 20th century have accused the government of “threatening” the assessment authority into making its decision, a court heard on Thursday.
The question from the university entrance exam, sat by some 4,900 candidates in May, drew immediate outrage from Beijing and pro-establishment figures in Hong Kong when it became known to the public on the day of the exam.
It was scrapped after the Education Bureau (EDB) made an unprecedented request for the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA) to invalidate the question, which it said had “hurt Chinese people’s feelings”. The city’s leader, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, meanwhile, said the body had made “a professional error”, one in which she could intervene.
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Among those affected was judicial review applicant Loh Ming-yin, who complained of being prejudiced by the HKEAA’s decision, because he had spent considerable time answering the compulsory question during his Diploma of Secondary Education exam.
At the High Court on Thursday, his counsel, Po Wing-kay, argued the HKEAA’s May 22 decision should be quashed because it took irrelevant factors into account, departed from the established process, and neglected academic freedom.
Po argued thments from the bureau and the chief executive amounted to deliberate threats and political pressure “palpably felt and heard” by the HKEAA, which had planned and administered the exam.
“It was never necessary for the EDB to resort to such a high-profile, high-handed tactic to make a point,” she said. “The (chief executive) was not qualified to make that statement.”
The lawyer said the HKEAA is a self-financing statutory body which values the bureau as a “strategic partner” with which it works closely to ensure alignment with the curriculum framework and academic structure.
But while she accepted that the EDB had a legitimate voice and role in the HKEAA Council, which ruled to invalidate the question, Po argued the bureau had “an inflated sense of its role” in erroneously treating the authority as a subservient body.
“It’s open to the court to make the inference that such a threat would have been taken into account, which was in fact what happened,” Po said.
Po also explained that the exam-setting process is a meticulous one that follows expert advice that should not be lightly set aside, and that there is an established process for reviewing questions, which involves conducting a statistical analysis of students’ responses in the aftermath.
The lawyer further argued that there was “nothing unusual” about the invalidated question in the context of a history exam, and noted the marking scheme had recognised the possibility of students relying on their knowledge and the sources cited and reaching a balanced answer.
Similar questions can be found in the International General Certificate of Secondary Education examinations in England, where students have been asked such provocative questions as whether they agree that “most people in Germany benefited from Nazi rule” or that “by 1900, the British ruled India for their own benefit”.
“It is the business of education to provoke thoughts,” Po said.
But Victor Dawes SC, for the HKEAA, countered that Po’s assertion of political pressure was unjustified, given that the decision was the result of professional academic judgment, made with reference to students’ interests, by “a group of highly educated people aware of their statutory functions”, following two full council meetings that spanned 12 hours.
“The court must be slow to intervene,” Dawes said. “The exercise of second guessing the collective wisdom of the council is really no different from someone who’s not legally trained picking up your lordship’s judgment and criticising it.”
Dawes also argued that the EDB was duty bound to look into the question, and that it was “entirely legitimate” for the HKEAA to take the government’s views into account.
He further dismissed suggestions of any chilling effect on academic freedom, explaining that the invalidation had narrowly targeted the way in which this particular question was set.
If the court were to quash the decision, the authorities would have to take up the “impossible task” of coming up with the marking scheme and completing the grading process, which typically takes 19 to 20 days, by July 22, when the exam results are set to be released.
The EDB will respond on Friday as the hearing continues before Mr Justice Russell Coleman.
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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