“One country, two systems.” Neither British nor Chinese, Hong Kong is like nothing else in the Pacific East. Since the handover in 1997, the Pearl of the Orient has enjoyed a sort of “undemocratic democracy” and Western liberties under British protectorate for 156 years. Similar to Taiwan, HK also exists in a precarious status of independence from People’s Republic of China. Unlike Taiwan however it does not have its own military, which makes it more like Quebec. HK and Quebec share a identification with colonial status, enjoy greater leeway of political and social autonomy but above all, both nations are in a fight to protect their linguistic and cultural heritage.
Hong Kong’s vibrancy is rooted in its British colonial history. Unlike Quebec, Hong Kongers embrace Anglo culture. HK mixes diversities of English from around the globe into a single cosmopolis hub, from British to Australian and Indian-English. It loans words and phrases that become reinterpreted and retranslated back into Chinese and vice-versa. Although Hong Kong’s officially bilingual, Chinese and English, the Official Languages Ordinance does not specify which dialect of Chinese is approved. English remains the formal language of government, administration and the judiciary. But at home and in the streets Cantonese is the spoken tongue of the Hong Kong majority, composing of 89.5% of the population while Mandarin speakers a mere 11.4% in a city of 7 million. That might all change as Beijing has incentivized its language policies and as current attitudes continually shifts towards Mandarin. Linguistic associate professor, Stephen Matthews, of the University of Hong Kong prophesized that, “[Cantonese] might survive for 50 years or so but after 50 years, it will still exist but it may well be on its way out.”
Hong Kong’s autonomy, democracy and free-market system are ultimately connected with the future of its dialect and culture. Presently, there is a language crisis provoked by Beijing and merchants between two forms of spoken and written Chinese. Simplified characters based on Mandarin, the official dialect and written standard of Mainland China, and traditional characters, based on the southern Cantonese dialect. Cantonese and Mandarin share its history in a common written form but differ in pronunciation and grammar. For sometime these two traditions have gone unnoticed until last May. When demonstrators descended onto HK clothing chain, Giordano, and publically bombarded French fashion company, Agnès b. Both businesses faced criticisms over the companies’ switch from traditional to simplified Chinese characters on tags and signage in order to cater to Mainland shoppers. Local outrage was immediately felt as Giordano protestors collected 500 signatures in the span of one weekend. Agnès b succumbed to public condemnations and reverted back to traditional characters. For Cantonese-speakers, the threat from Beijing is the genocide of Cantonese, as is already the case in Shanghai where less than 50% now speak Shanghainese. In 1992, Beijing discouraged use of the dialect in schools. Mandarin and English subsequently became standard working tongues of Shanghai and for any employment security.
Consequently, Cantonese speakers are pushing back. Continuous protests was uncommon to Hong Kong until 2003, which coincided with the recession of the Asian Tigers that rendered HK dependent on Beijing’s safeguard under China’s dynamo economy. However, the question of sovereignty did not ensue until Beijing attempted to impose China’s version of history onto HK’s school curriculum. This included Patriots class, which promoted one-party system, exclusion of the teaching of the Tiananmen Square protests and student massacre. China’s government ultimately bowed to demonstrators’ demands and withdrew the proposal last September after 100,000 students and professors demonstrated and staged mass hunger strike campaigns. Hong Kong not unlike Montreal has since developed a reputation in Asia as the protest city. However, under Chapter 1, Article 5 of the Hong Kong Basic Law, HK’s autonomy has a 50 years expiration date beginning at Reunification and ending 2047. Beijing is the only entity with prerogative to reapprove Hong Kong autonomy. Officially, there are no dialogues on what would happen on that date but already China’s efforts have been growing bolder each month since 2003. Last December, Beijing introduced Mandarinization incentives to HK primary schools, currently 160, to teach Mandarin over Cantonese. Should Pauline Marois take a page from the Chinese Communist Party, the premier would do best to dump the hammer that is Bill 101 and offer the carrot of incentivized French program into the private English school loophole system.
Meanwhile, HK students applying for international studies need English and Mandarin to improve their chances of acceptance. As a consequence, their Cantonese deteriorates. Yet for millions of other Hong Kongers, they depend on their Westernism to define them from Chinese mainlanders. Cantonese for generations have been a global flagship of Chinese culture when the West closed its doors around China during its hermetic period. Mandarin and Cantonese’s turmoil to coexist and supposed decline of the latter into obsoletism is not faulted by any incompatibility or impracticality of two traditions. It is rather an unwillingness of Mandarin elites to recognize Cantonese’s vital contribution, partnership and Beijing’s fear of losing its power monopoly from ideas. Both dialects must rise together as a renewed powerhouse China. Mandarinization is only a road to extinction of a rich, vibrant dialect and culture, along with a bastion of Chinese democracy and free market.
– Trent Lee
(Featured Photo: ROSS HONG KONG, Creative Commons, Flickr)