Skip to main content

Music Shouldn’t Stop at Hong Kong’s School Gates

Education Minister Wrong to Limit Students’ Free Expression

Children wait for a school bus in Hong Kong, November 20, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim

Hong Kong’s secretary for education, Kevin Yeung, must have skipped the class on children’s rights.

This week, Yeung banned school students from singing or playing certain political songs at school, saying children’s right to expression “is not absolute.”

No one’s free speech rights are absolute, but under international human rights law, the right to freedom of expression can only be restricted when necessary to protect other people’s rights or reputation, or for genuine national security, public order, or public health reasons. Any restrictions must be proportionate to the threat posed.

There’s no loophole for banning songs that make politicians feel uncomfortable. And children’s free expression rights are protected under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

So, yes, schools can limit children blasting their music of choice during classes – whether it’s the protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong” or the Cantonese pop hit “We Grew This Way” – since that might disrupt fellow students’ education. But it does not justify a blanket ban on all songs with a political theme on school grounds.

Nor can authorities play DJ and pick the music. Although Yeung’s views on today’s Top 40 remain unknown, he has approved the song “I love Basic Law,” which praises Hong Kong’s functional constitution. He’s also expressed no qualms with legislation compelling schools to penalize students who “disrespect” mainland China’s national anthem.

Yeung’s music ban comes hot on the heels of China’s new National Security Law, whose broad provisions prohibit an uncertain array of peaceful behavior, and under which the authorities have already arrested dozens of Hong Kongers. But it is difficult to see how singing children present a national security concern.

Yeung also said that, “Under no circumstances should anyone be allowed to incite students to indicate their stance on controversial or evolving political issues.” But this goes against the actual aims of education under international human rights law: to develop children’s personalities, mental abilities, cultural identity and values, and respect for human rights, and to prepare them for a responsible life in a free society. Children’s right to express their views on matters concerning them is also internationally protected.

In short: children should be free to form and express their opinions, fears, joys, and desires.

They should be allowed – and even encouraged – to raise them in the classroom, post them on their school newspaper’s blog, paint them in art class, and debate them in the courtyard.

Or, sing them.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country