Could do better, Donald - that goes for all of us

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 March, 2011, 12:00am

Donald Tsang Yam-kuen should have had every reason to feel satisfied with his speech at the prestigious Peking University yesterday, holding forth on such erudite subjects as the internationalisation of the renminbi - all in the national tongue.

But when the floor was opened to questions, it appeared it was not so much what the chief executive said but how he said it that had caught the students' attention.

He was told his Putonghua really needed some work ... and that went for the rest of Hong Kong, too.

'I have visited Hong Kong many times,' one student said, citing two occasions on which he had to speak English to pedestrians to make himself understood. 'I think many mainlanders have encountered this problem in Hong Kong. Chief executive, do you think it is necessary to promote Putonghua in Hong Kong?'

Tsang quickly apologised for his own inadequacies, before an audience of nearly 1,000 teachers and students. 'One has to go through a process of learning,' he said. 'I did not start learning Putonghua until in my 40s. So please excuse me for not speaking well.'

However, the chief executive made a valiant attempt to defend the honour of Hong Kong.

'Our primary and secondary school students are learning [Putonghua] quite well,' he said. 'I believe the pupils can use it well after several years of learning.

'Many of our young civil servants speak Putonghua very fluently. Thank you for your reminder. We will continue to make the efforts.'

Tsang was on the final day of a four-day visit to Beijing to attend the National People's Congress annual plenary meetings, and it appeared the nation's leaders were a far more linguistically tolerant audience.

Xi Jing, a masters student who was in the university audience, said it took him a while to adjust to Tsang's less-than-pure Putonghua.

Tony Yung Wah Kwok, a Hongkonger studying law at Tsinghua University, took issue with Tsang's claim that the standard of Putonghua among his compatriots was good.

'Tsang said that the civil service officers are mostly good in Putonghua. But I don't think it is the case in Hong Kong,' he said.

He noted, however, that the chief executive's Putonghua appeared to have improved but could still do with some work.