Hong Kong under pressure to use standard Chinese language

Hong Kong under pressure to use standard Chinese language

Hong Kong under pressure to use standard Chinese language
Posted on December 12th, 2022

The shadow of linguistic domination is creeping over Hong Kong amid mainland China's growing influence in all areas.

While Hong Kongers use Cantonese on a daily basis, Legislative Council lawmakers and high-ranking government officials who speak Mandarin -- known in Chinese as Putonghua, meaning "the common tongue" -- have appeared. A recent government survey found that for the first time since Hong Kong's return to China in 1997, more than half of Hong Kongers can now speak Mandarin.

A teacher at a secondary school in Hong Kong said the school has many children of "new immigrants" and cross-border students from the mainland, and some cannot speak Cantonese. At the school, Mandarin is used for daily conversations between those students, and even children born in Hong Kong speak it to get along with them, according to the teacher.

The term "new immigrants" generally refers to people who migrated to Hong Kong from mainland China after the city's return to Chinese rule. Over the 10 years before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, some 450,000 people migrated with a visa called the "one-way entry permit."

Hong Kong has a population of 7.3 million. Although some new immigrants cannot speak Cantonese, they are gradually expanding their presence in Hong Kong society.

Cantonese and Mandarin differ greatly in pronunciation and vocabulary. Mandarin has four tones; speakers change the pitch of their voice for each. Cantonese has six tones -- some say nine. Mainland Chinese, other than those from Guangdong province, can barely comprehend or speak Cantonese until they get used to it.

Unlike in the mainland, where simplified Chinese characters are used, traditional characters are mainly used in Hong Kong.

According to a survey conducted by the Hong Kong government in 2021, Cantonese is the "usual spoken language" for 88% of Hong Kongers, almost unchanged from the 89% in 1996, the year before the city's return to China. But the ratio of people capable of speaking Mandarin had continued to rise, from 25% in 1996 to 54% in 2021.

Education has greatly contributed to the development. Education in Mandarin has become mandatory in Hong Kong since its return to Chinese rule. Schools are encouraged to teach the Chinese language in Mandarin.

Under government guidelines, elementary schools are required to spend 25% to 30% of class hours on teaching the Chinese language, including Mandarin. According to a survey by a Cantonese support group, Societas Linguistica Hongkongensis, 67% of elementary schools in Hong Kong use Mandarin to teach the Chinese language.

Mandarin is also finding its way into the governing structure in Hong Kong. In January, three of the 90 people elected to the Legislative Council took the oath of office in Mandarin. Sun Dong, one of the three, now serves as secretary for innovation, technology and industry. Speaking Mandarin at news conferences and other occasions, he is the first holder of a Hong Kong ministerial post whose primary language is the standard form of Chinese.

"Money comes from mainland China to Hong Kong. [So] Hong Kong people should learn Mandarin, and it's better to learn it from primary school," Chairman Ronnie Chan of Hang Lung Properties, a leading real estate company in Hong Kong, said at a lecture meeting in November, according to Ming Pao, a Chinese-language newspaper in the city. Chan joked, "I am recently more fluent in Mandarin than in Cantonese."

Hang Lung has a portfolio of businesses, including the development of luxury homes, in mainland China. Chan maintains that the teaching of Mandarin should be promoted in Hong Kong for the benefit of the territory. In other words, the rising status of Mandarin is the reverse side of Hong Kong's increased economic dependence on the mainland.

"After the handover in 1997, communication between Hong Kong and mainland China increased," said Benjamin Au Yeung, an expert in Cantonese and former senior lecturer at Chinese University in Hong Kong. "It's not surprising to see fewer people speaking Cantonese as there are more new immigrants."

Au Yeung noted that it has not yet reached a "language crisis" but added that "there is a danger." The use of Cantonese may become a language used at home, while Mandarin and English will be used in schools and workplaces, he said.

On Weibo, seen as the Chinese version of Twitter, a noticeable number of texts in Cantonese criticizing China's zero-COVID policy have appeared, according to China Digital Times, an independent news website covering China.

While such messages normally are immediately deleted, those written in Cantonese occasionally sneak past the censors. Cantonese livestreams were cut off on the Douyin video app in October, possibly because the system failed to recognize the language.

The widespread use of Mandarin at the expense of Cantonese will be a boon to the Chinese leadership under President Xi Jinping in adopting a strict gag rule. Given the presence of many ethnic minority groups in China, education in Mandarin is a tool to enhance a sense of unity as Chinese people.

The Chinese government has been promoting teaching Mandarin to ethnic Koreans and Mongolians under its target of increasing the number of people who speak the language to 85% of the nation's population by 2025.

In a report in June 2021, the Chinese government suggested that Hong Kong clarify the legal status of Mandarin and simplified Chinese characters and incorporate the standard language into its educational evaluation system.

Local schools in Hong Kong should offer Chinese education in Mandarin if conditions are met, Christine Choi Yuk-lin, secretary for education, was quoted as saying in July by the Global Times, a newspaper affiliated with the Communist Party. Although the Education Bureau later called the report inaccurate, Beijing's pressure on Hong Kong for Mandarin education keeps increasing.

As people identify themselves with a language, it is by no means easy to force another language on them. In fact, civil movements are underway in Hong Kong to preserve Cantonese, such as the publication of audiobooks using the language.

According to Au Yeung, the disappearance of a language is related to its social and political status. Preserving Cantonese has been promoted in recent years, but "can be influenced by the political climate as mainland China tightens its control on Hong Kong, which may trigger a counterforce."

Original article: Hong Kong under pressure to use standard Chinese language

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