How English can save Hong Kong from becoming ‘just another Chinese city’
Elbert Lee says the safest way to protect a culture is by preserving its languages. Hong Kong’s bilingualism, which includes Cantonese and English, is part of its unique heritage and will distinguish it from cities on the mainland
As we edge towards 2047, some of us live in perpetual fear that one day we will be completely assimilated into China, that our economy will be subservient, our political system controlled, and our culture and values replaced by those of the multitudes from the mainland.
The recent debate on Chinese customs stationed on Hong Kong territory is a case in point. It is seen as a move on Beijing’s part to exert its hold on Hong Kong. As is often the case with matters between Beijing and Hong Kong, distrust and fear morph into legal intricacies that ordinary people find baffling.
Continuing to stoke fear is the perceived pressure on Hong Kong to conform to the economic and urban development of the Greater Bay Area. A recent Post article argued that, to catch up, Hong Kong must allow for more immigrants and undertake more innovation and investment.
These can be seen as ominous signs that one day Hong Kong and mainland China will become one. Facing us is the double issue of identity and autonomy. The fear is real, but not in the sense that Beijing deliberately and strategically wants Hong Kong to be “just another city” for the ease of authoritarian governance. Rather, as economies merge and trade and lifestyle exchanges increase, the two sides will accommodate each other, diluting important differences. Of course, this will happen whether Hong Kong or Beijing wants it or not, given our open trade connections.
We must ask ourselves what we want to preserve, and what can be preserved and what cannot. What constitutes our cultural identity? What’s so “Hong Kong” about Hong Kong? Is it our history? Our lifestyle? Our legal system and core values, whatever they may be?
In the 70s, to protect its culture from being too influenced by the predominantly anglophone environment, Quebec passed Bill 101, making French the sole official language of the province. The protection of language cascades down to all aspects of life, from law to business practices and street signs.
Bill 101 suggests that the best way to protect a culture is to protect its languages. In a free business environment, cultural hardware, such as cinema houses and public space, can be bought and sold and cultural practices, such as food habits, can be displaced and replaced. But languages are living; as long as they are used and spoken by a population, they cannot be easily eliminated.
Further, most cultural practices are only meaningful and can be passed on across generations through language. For example, without its followers praying and using it, a temple is no better than a block of coloured bricks. It is only through language that the different aspects of cultural practice are woven together to give life to any particular form of culture.
Hong Kong is bilingual with English being its second official language. If the primary means of protecting a culture is to protect a language associated with it, then attempts to reinforce and facilitate the use of English are critical in retaining Hong Kong’s cultural identity.
Hong Kong is probably the only city in China where most people are comfortable with English-based media, pop music, drama and literature. Moreover, laws and business contracts are written and mediated in English. And I am sure Hong Kong will be the only city that will be bilingual to this degree for a long time. This means the cultural heritage of Hong Kong will continue to live as long as English use does not weaken or die.
English is a core aspect of Hong Kong’s identity and carries with it many advantages. Because of Hong Kong’s bilingual status, it is still a great place for foreign companies to locate offices compared with other cities in China. An important development in the international media landscape is its anglicisation. I cannot think of a major country without a dedicated English channel. This may seem like a paradox – for many countries, to keep their culture and language, they also have to present themselves in the 21st-century lingua franca, English. I remember stories of taxi drivers in Paris refusing to speak English to tourists. In a turn of events, French President Emmanuel Macron recently addressed his audience in both English and French at Davos.
Stressing the significance of English in Hong Kong may touch the nerves of the more conservative political camps. Proficiency in a language associated with the West does not undermine one’s political or cultural orientation. Recall Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s engagement with his Western counterparts and media in English. This allows him not only to advance the interests of his company but also communicate national interests and ideals that are important to him. English does not seem to water down his love for tai chi and other things Chinese.
Tentative recent research findings on language and cognition suggest that bilingual individuals are better at executive control – basic cognitive functions such as selective attention and decoding a language, compared to those who are monolingual. Being bilingual seems to also benefit individuals at a higher cognitive level. Studies have shown that bilingual people are better than their monolingual counterparts in social perspectives, taking in reading and writing. If we want to stretch our imagination a little, this is important in a politically complex world. But there is more to bilingualism. For reasons that are still unclear, it is also negatively associated with dementia.
Hong Kong is in the enviable position of having two official languages, English being one of them. This is part of Hong Kong’s heritage and a core part of our identity. To ascertain our identity is to ascertain our proper place in the political map of China. It dispels assimilation fears. However, I am not sure if we are making the best use of the bilingual environment and education guaranteed by the Basic Law. To do so, language policymakers must rise above short-term politics and simple business needs to arrive at a new vision of language policy and local bilingualism that will benefit Hong Kong, and definitely China too, in the long run.
Elbert Lee is an adjunct member of the faculty at Upper Iowa University, Hong Kong campus, where he teaches cognition and human development