Mind Your Language

It may seem like a strange thing to be saying in the current environment, but there was a time within living memory when most Hong Kong people paid little attention to politics. For most of us, the number one priority was scratching a bare living. For the tiny minority of movers and shakers, the prime objective was trying to build a business empire on this "barren rock with nary a house upon it".

Politics was mainly the preserve of the colonial administration. The head of government was appointed by Whitehall, essentially the Prime Minister on the recommendation of the Foreign Secretary, so in a way we enjoyed one man one vote, and the one man lived at number 10 Downing Street. (Nominating committee, one person; number of candidates, one person; size of electorate, one person. Very efficient, albeit not very democratic).

Things began to change slowly in the late 1960s and early 70s with growing affluence and the emergence of a community which saw Hong Kong as its permanent home rather than as a jumping off point for emigration. Attention then turned to basic issues like decent housing to replace squatter huts, education so the next generation had a better shot at the good life, and dealing with the pervasive corruption which touched almost every aspect of daily life. One by one these matters were addressed but politics was still pretty much a minority sport until the Sino British agreement of 1984 on Hong Kong’s future. From that point on, it gradually dawned on more and more people that at some point we were going to have to play a greater role in running our own affairs in future. So we came to the Basic Law and the idea of Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong.

The contrast with that earlier, simpler, time could hardly be more stark. Now everything, however trivial, is political and it seems like everyone has something to say about it. Where, how and from whom to buy a train ticket to go to Guangdong, and with what service charge? Let’s have a debate about it. When, where and how to stand when singing the national anthem? Let’s have a debate about it. Even, now, a discussion about our mother tongue and the relative merits of Mandarin and Cantonese, and whether they are really languages or dialects.

The latest episode was triggered when social welfare constituency lawmaker Bottle Shiu Ka Chun asked chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet Ngoh whether her mother tongue was Cantonese. Lam declined to answer on the grounds that the question was "frivolous" which it clearly was, but there might have been a smoother way to answer which could have dampened the flames rather than fan them. Because the issue of language is at the heart of fears about the increasing "mainlandisation" of Hong Kong, our identity as a city, and "one country, two systems". And these issues are very real and very sensitive.

Historians among us recall that the debate over a national language was settled soon after the establishment of the Republic of China in 1911. There were only two real contenders, Mandarin the main language of the northern provinces and Cantonese, widely used in the south. The former narrowly got the vote, and since then central governments of all stripes have gradually promoted its wider usage partly as a means of unifying the nation and partly on the practical grounds of facilitating communication between different parts of the country. This practice did not change when the Republic became the People’s Republic on conclusion of the civil war in 1949.

Now, throughout the mainland, Mandarin (known as "Putonghua", meaning common language) is used in schools to teach all subjects, including of course Chinese itself. That practice has been extended to schools in Guangdong, so gradually a younger generation is emerging that makes less and less use of Cantonese. Previously Mandarin was only in wide usage in the southern city of Shenzhen, which being the first special economic zone created by Deng Xiaoping as the birthplace of economic reform attracted people from all over the country: Mandarin was the only language they had in common.

There have been suggestions that the government here has a secret agenda to make Mandarin the language of instruction in Hong Kong schools. This has been officially denied, and no doubt that is true for the time being.

But if we step back and look at the subject from a wider perspective several major trends are clear. First, the percentage of local households using Cantonese at home is slowly declining, from 90.8 in 2006 to 88.9 in 2016 according to official census data. Secondly, Hong Kong accepts around 55,000 migrants a year from the mainland mostly for family reunion. Since they come predominantly from Guangdong this has in the past meant a steady influx of more Cantonese speakers. For reasons explained earlier, that balance is beginning to change, and future inflows will be bringing more Mandarin speakers. Thirdly, when the rest of the world learns Chinese, it means overwhelmingly Mandarin. Overseas teaching institutions seldom have courses in Cantonese. Finally there is a basic economic argument. Hong Kong’s role is essentially to bring the world to China and take China to the world. That means every child finishing secondary school here must be proficient in both English and Mandarin in order to have decent job prospects. Typically, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew worked this out decades ago and made these the two main languages in the city enclave. When will we have the courage to copy him? There is no mileage in fighting history.

It is inevitable, then, that Hongkongers will make increasing use of Mandarin in future and it will be the mother tongue of an increasing percentage of young people. But that is not a sinister thing and Cantonese can continue to be a thriving language alongside, particularly as it becomes increasingly established in written form.

It would be nice if we could depoliticise the issue and just allow conversations to take place naturally in whatever language the participants feel more comfortable.