Students must stop blaming their woes on the rise of Mandarin

What we have is a disaffected minority covering up their own sense of inadequacy under the guise of a radicalised localism

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 January, 2018, 1:40am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 January, 2018, 1:40am

Last September, localist radical Alvin Cheng Kam-mun was fined HK$3,000 for dumping library books in what he considered an attempt to protect children from the “cultural invasion” of simplified Chinese characters. Today, some Baptist University students are up in arms against mandatory Mandarin courses, with widespread peer support from other universities.

Many critics see such resistance as part of a youthful localist reaction against mainland cultural invasion. Those young people, they claim, see Mandarin and its simplified writing script as the language of the enemy.

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There is something to that observation. However, I think many university students have more than a functional grasp of Mandarin, so we may only be hearing from a vocal minority.

Still, the passions and hatred displayed by some students seem to indicate something deeper and more primal. It may have something to do with what University of Hong Kong council chairman Arthur Li Kwok-cheung calls “the loser mentality”. There is a more fanciful French word, ressentiment, used by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to denote something similar.

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In the past, only the most elite and gifted students went to just two universities. Employers queued up to offer them jobs. The University of Science and Technology joined the club in the early 1990s.

Today, we have 10 universities taking in more than 20 per cent of secondary school graduates. University graduates are no longer considered elite. Their earnings reflect that. According to a recent survey by New Century Forum, the entry-level jobs of almost 45 per cent of graduates are low-skilled or labour-intensive rather than knowledge-based, compared to just 33 per cent in 1996.

Worse, they are told incessantly by bosses and the news media that their language standards – in English and Mandarin – are not up to scratch. Michael Tien Puk-sun was in a RTHK debate last week with Baptist’s student union president Lau Tsz-kei, who led protests against the school’s Mandarin policy. The lawmaker and G2000 clothing chain founder claimed to be speaking for other employers when he said it was hard to hire new graduates proficient in English or Mandarin, let alone both.

The localist stance against Mandarin in fact goes against the city’s own language trends. Since 2012, more and more Cantonese speakers speak Mandarin than English. So what you have is a disaffected minority covering up their own sense of inadequacy under the guise of a radicalised localism.