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Any attack on the Cantonese language will only strengthen Hong Kong identity – just look at Taiwan’s experience

Anson Au says Taiwan’s experience with the ‘re-Sinicisation’ policies of Chiang Kai-shek’s time shows how such cultural oppression will only lead to hatred, and an awakening of local identity 

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 May, 2018, 6:23pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 5:44pm

Last month, an online forum in Hong Kong circulated a 2013 article written by a mainland Chinese scholar, for Chinese-language teachers here, suggesting that Mandarin, rather than Cantonese, should be Hong Kong’s mother tongue. What’s more, the scholar, Song Xinqiao, drew on resources published by the Hong Kong Education Bureau to back his assertion.

The article ignited a firestorm from all corners of Hong Kong, with commentators, writers and even celebrities, including Chinese-language teacher Benjamin Au Yeung Wai-hoo – more popularly known as “Ben Sir” – chiming in. 

The issue has touched a raw nerve in Hong Kong. For years, a group of Hongkongers have warned about the expansion of mainland Chinese influence in Hong Kong and how it would result in the displacement of local identity and culture, of which Cantonese is an important part; a displacement that Hong Kong people seem powerless to stop. 

Mandarin may be king, but it can’t sideline Cantonese in Hong Kong

But the imposition of mainland Chinese values on a vassal society is not without historical precedent. Taiwan’s experience offers some clarity as we grapple with our contemporary fears. 

In fact, this historical parallel suggests that Hong Kong identity will never disappear, and neither will Cantonese. Hong Kong is not nearly as helpless as it thinks.

When Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his followers fled to Taiwan following their defeat by Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, they implemented a set of policies in Taiwan within a larger effort of “re-Sinicisation”. The intention of these policies was to socialise the Taiwanese into Chinese culture and identity, purge deep-seated Japanese influences, and ultimately prepare for Taiwan’s anticipated reunification with the mainland. 

These policies, which were enforced with authoritarian brutality, led to discrimination and inequality in virtually every sphere of life. 

Local Taiwanese were discriminated against in employment for a lack of Mandarin proficiency or qualification requirements that followed those in China. Many Taiwanese ended up being replaced by mainland Chinese elite in industry, politics and the civil service, such as in the judicial offices.

Hong Kong is not nearly as helpless as it thinks

Other “softer” measures were implemented that tried to supplant Taiwanese characteristics with Chinese traits: Mandarin and other Chinese dialects became the national languages in education, television and films; buildings were reconstructed in northern Chinese architectural styles; street names in Taipei were replaced with ones that were associated with traditional Confucian values; non-Mandarin speakers were stigmatised and even portrayed as criminals in the media; and local, non-Mandarin cultural expressions were censured, with those judged guilty given corporal punishment.  

As brutal as these policies were, the Taiwanese identity and native languages did not die. 

In response to the repression, counterculture trends flourished across the spheres of literature, language, education and politics, in a widespread movement for Taiwanese localisation. New political parties were formed that were dedicated to defending local Taiwanese interests, social movements were born to protect local rights and localise textbook content, and a new wave of writers emerged who actively tried to define a Taiwanese identity.  

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Despite facing oppressive conditions far worse than Hong Kong, the Taiwanese succeeded in maintaining their identity. Opinion polls continue to indicate popular identification with some kind of Taiwanese ethnicity, even if in combination with Chinese ethnicity.

What has been essential to the Taiwanese identity is a shared resentment against mainland China

Taiwanese history and its native languages have been successfully preserved in museums and daily life. Discrimination against locals has also been pushed back. 

Over the years, different groups of Taiwanese have bonded over their common history of national suffering and experience of marginalisation. The Taiwanese identity that has emerged continues to unite its people. 

The Taiwanese created for themselves a repertoire of cultural norms, values and practices that is collectively understood and drawn upon for empowerment. And the tools with which they did this – political parties, social movements, literary discussions, public speech to defend localised education and protect heritage – are also present in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has its own common experiences to unite its people and it certainly isn’t powerless to defend its language.  

Hatred is a powerful source of strength. What has been essential to the Taiwanese identity is a shared resentment against mainland China. Motivated by a history of oppression to protect their sense of belonging, the Taiwanese conceived of a national identity to clearly demarcate outsiders.

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Taiwan is not ethnically homogeneous. But for all the differences between the ethnic groups, the re-Sinicisation policy directive united the people and forged a Taiwanese identity. 

Like Taiwan, Hong Kong can draw on its antipathy towards mainland encroachment into local culture and norms to differentiate Hongkongers from mainlanders, to preserve the “purity” of its people. Mainlanders are “outsiders” here as much as they are in Taiwan. And being less ethnically diverse, Hong Kong may find it even easier to foster a sense of unity.

Cantonese will never die as long as the people are united in their defence of the local language and culture. And unity will not die as long as hatred lives.

You could never replace Cantonese as the language of Hong Kong

But, still, there are better ways to move forward. Hatred breeds unity, but in fragmented camps that will lead to war. 

Under the current conditions, Cantonese will live on but so will conflict. To help ease Hong Kong-mainland relations in at least one key area, the Hong Kong Education Bureau should do its part to heed Hong Kong sensitivities and work to preserve a balance between Cantonese and Mandarin instruction in the local school system. 

Anson Au is a visiting researcher in the Department of Sociology at Hong Kong Baptist University