image image


Debate over Cantonese and the handover highlight Hongkongers’ feeling of political helplessness

Alice Wu says the Hong Kong government should be taking the pulse of the people instead of igniting suspicions with changes to long-used terms or questions over whether Cantonese is a mother tongue

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 May, 2018, 9:33am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 5:44pm

At last week’s chief executive question-and-answer session at the Legislative Council, some of our legislators made sure that Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor got an earful over “Cantonese being a dialect and not a mother tongue”. In the news are also the unresolved “inaccuracy” of the phrase “taking back Hong Kong” and the very (un)timely elimination of the use of “handover” by the official protocol office. As I’m no historian or linguist, I won’t argue over semantics.  

But these are not just matters of semantics. And when they are raised against the backdrop of strained Beijing-Hong Kong relations, they become downright cruel and counterproductive – that is, if one does not want to further strain the delicate relationship. 

Beijing says 1984 treaty still binding, but UK cannot interfere

Why has the “Cantonese is not a mother-tongue” spectre been raised at this time? The view was expressed in a 2013 article by Song Xinqiao, a professional consultant at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Research and Development of Putonghua Education. The article was part of a set of 25 on Mandarin teaching experiences.

Since 1997, the Education Bureau has sent 11 sets of these articles to primary schools. The strong emotions that this has sparked is what our government officials must take note of. 

 Cantonese, though not unique to Hong Kong, is an unalienable part of Hongkongers’ identity

Cantonese, though not unique to Hong Kong, is an unalienable part of Hongkongers’ identity. Actions that are seen as attacking or downgrading it elicit emotionally charged responses. Some of these reactions are indeed over the top and uncalled for, such as the Baptist University students’ rowdy and obscenity-laced protest at the university’s language centre at the beginning of the year demanding that a mandatory Mandarin language requirement be scrapped. 

In recent weeks, it seems that the government has been on some kind of an offensive – beginning with a government-appointed committee tasked with reviewing textbooks, followed by Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung taking issue with “taking back” Hong Kong as a description of the territory’s return to China in 1997. Many weighed in on the debate, including the chief executive herself, who said more accurate terminology should be welcomed.  

How Hong Kong handover hid the story of the decade

The Post recently found that the government’s Protocol Division has changed its website and removed any mention of “handover of sovereignty”. It seems that “handover” is not quite acceptable anymore either. But for as long as I can remember, July 1, 1997 has been referred to as the “handover” and each subsequent July 1 has been commonly called “the anniversary of the handover”.

Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung reacted quite strongly to the suggestion that the protocol office was “rewriting history”. Cheung argued, in a letter to the Post, that “the term ‘handover’ was purely a convenient term coined in the run-up to 1997”.

Meet Hong Kong’s handover generation

However, that “convenient term” is part of this city’s identity too, so it is most unwise to be introducing more words to argue over. Attacking “handover” with technicalities is pointless, unless, of course, it is done with the intention of aggravating the people’s excitable sentiments.  

Instead of fanning the flames and arguing over semantics, it is now time for the government to carefully feel the pulse of public sentiment. With all the talk of Beijing’s commitment to asserting its “comprehensive jurisdiction over Hong Kong” and calls for legislation of Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hongkongers are already in a politically anxious state. Nitpicking about words that have been so widely used and making an issue of Cantonese, used by generations of Hongkongers to express themselves, create a politically claustrophobic environment.

The political helplessness of the people of this city as a result of being handed between masters in 1997 remains a reality. To ignore, let alone aggravate, these sentiments, will result only in disaster.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA