Peng Liyuan's fluent English should open our eyes to Hong Kong's falling standards

Philip Yeung says the Chinese first lady's moving UN speech in fluent English should make us ashamed of how much we have fallen behind

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 October, 2015, 12:29pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 October, 2015, 4:09pm

Click here to read this article in Chinese.

We should not measure China's progress by gross domestic product alone. President Xi Jinping's meticulously planned state visit to the US produced few surprises, but nobody was prepared for this: China's first lady Peng Liyuan making a moving speech to the world as a special envoy for Unesco's initiative on the education of girls and women.

READ MORE: China's first lady Peng Liyuan impresses with fluent English speech at United Nations

It is astounding how far China has come. Even as recently as five years ago, it would be unimaginable that a Chinese first lady could wow the world, much less address a UN gathering in heartfelt English.

Watch: Peng Liyuan's speech at the United Nations

The ripples from Peng's maiden speech go beyond the confines of the UN agency. They bring to mind a former US first lady, now a presidential hopeful, who can argue her way out of any toe-curling embarrassment. What Hillary Clinton lacks is what Peng has in abundance: authenticity. Hers is a nobility born of hardship and service.

Listening to Peng, I felt a stab of shame and anger at Hong Kong's dysfunctional schools

Without the benefit of a Western education, with next to no exposure to English, she managed to break down the cultural and linguistic barriers. At last, China has its own consummate exponent of soft power. Though her words were scripted, they clearly came from her heart, her global vision couched in a personal story about what her father did in her native village for those who were missing out in education.

Listening to Peng, I felt a stab of shame and anger at Hong Kong's dysfunctional schools. Unlike China's first lady, who came to English late, most Hong Kong students receive 12 years of free English education. But in "teaching to the test", educators forgot to teach them how to speak the world's only global language.

READ MORE: Hong Kong’s native English-speaking teacher scheme can work, but only if we expand it

Teaching students English is necessary to stretch their minds and their world. Our young are alarmingly withdrawing into their own shell. Hong Kong now ranks below Japan and Korea in general English proficiency.

While China is going global, Hong Kong is going in the other direction. Decolonisation, yes; but it doesn't have to mean de-globalisation. Take English out of the equation, and with it our global orientation, and we become just another lacklustre Chinese city without identity.

Hong Kong used to be China's bridge to the world. Now it is more like a drawbridge, with the Shenzhen River as our moat. We are producing a generation hostile to the mainland and indifferent to the world. If Hong Kong ceases to be relevant to the world, it becomes irrelevant to the mainland. Let's hope Peng's moment of glory on the world stage will inspire us to go global and speak English.

Philip Yeung is consultant to the vice-rector for academic affairs at the University of Macau and a former speechwriter to the president of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. [email protected]