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Take politics out of the conversation on Cantonese and Mandarin, and use each language when needed

Mike Rowse says demographic changes and Hong Kong’s role as the gateway to China mean Mandarin will increasingly make its presence felt, but Cantonese can continue to thrive alongside

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2018, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 5:44pm

It may seem a strange thing to be saying in the current environment, but there was a time within living memory when most Hong Kong people paid little attention to politics. For most of us, the top priority was scraping together a living. For the tiny minority of movers and shakers, the prime objective was trying to build a business empire on this “barren rock with nary a house upon it”. 

Politics was mainly the preserve of the colonial administration. The head of government was essentially appointed by the prime minister on the recommendation of the foreign secretary, so in a way we enjoyed one man, one vote – and the one man lived at number 10 Downing Street.

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Things began to change slowly in the late 1960s and early 1970s with growing affluence and the emergence of a community which saw Hong Kong as its permanent home, rather than as a jumping-off point for emigration. Attention then turned to basic issues like decent housing to replace squatter huts, education and dealing with the pervasive corruption.

One by one, these matters were addressed but politics was still pretty much a minority sport until the Sino-British agreement of 1984 on Hong Kong’s future. From then on, it gradually dawned on more people that we were going to have to play a greater role in running our own affairs. So we arrived at the Basic Law and the idea of Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong. 

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The contrast with that earlier, simpler time could hardly be more stark. Now everything, however trivial, is political and it seems like everyone has something to say about it. Where, how and from whom to buy a train ticket to go to Guangdong, and with what service charge? When, where and how to stand when singing the national anthem? Let’s have a debate about it. Now, we must even have a discussion about our mother tongue and whether Mandarin and Cantonese are really languages or dialects. 

The issue of language is at the heart of fears about the increasing ‘mainlandisation’ of Hong Kong

When social welfare constituency lawmaker Shiu Ka-chun asked Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor whether her mother tongue was Cantonese, Lam declined to answer on the grounds that the question was “frivolous”. It clearly was, but there might have been a smoother way to respond that could have dampened the flames rather than fan them. The issue of language is at the heart of fears about the increasing “mainlandisation” of Hong Kong, our identity as a city, and “one country, two systems”.

The debate over a national language was settled soon after the establishment of the Republic of China in 1911. Cantonese, as the language widely used in the south, may have been a contender, but Mandarin, the main language of the northern provinces, prevailed, and the central government has since promoted its wider usage partly as a means of unifying the nation and partly on the practical grounds of facilitating communication between different parts of the country. This continued when the Republic became the People’s Republic in 1949. 

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Now, throughout the mainland, Mandarin (known as “Putonghua”, meaning common language) is used in schools to teach all subjects. That practice has been extended to schools in Guangdong province so, gradually, a younger generation is emerging that uses Cantonese less. Previously in the south, Mandarin was only widely used in Shenzhen which, being the first special economic zone created by Deng Xiaoping, attracted people from all over the country.

The percentage of people aged six to 65 that reports using Cantonese at home is slowly declining

There have been suggestions that the government here has a secret agenda to make Mandarin the language of instruction in Hong Kong schools. This has been officially denied, and no doubt that is true for the time being. 

But if we look at the subject from a wider perspective, several trends are clear. First, the percentage of people aged six to 65 that reports using Cantonese at home is slowly declining, from 90.3 in 2013 to 88.1 in 2016 according to Census Bureau surveys. Secondly, Hong Kong accepts around 55,000 migrants a year from the mainland, mostly to reunite families. Since they come predominantly from Guangdong province, in the past this has meant a steady influx of more Cantonese speakers. For reasons explained earlier, that balance is shifting, and future inflows will bring more Mandarin speakers. Thirdly, when the rest of the world learns Chinese, it overwhelmingly means Mandarin. 

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

Finally, there is a basic economic argument. Hong Kong’s role is to bring the world to China and take China to the world. That means every child finishing secondary school here must be proficient in both English and Mandarin in order to have decent job prospects. Typically, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew worked this out decades ago and made these the two main languages in the country. When will we have the courage to copy him? There is no mileage in fighting history. 

It is inevitable, then, that Hongkongers will make increasing use of Mandarin in future and it will be the mother tongue of an increasing percentage of young people. But that is not a sinister development and Cantonese can continue to be a thriving language alongside, particularly as it becomes increasingly established in written form. 

It would be nice if we could depoliticise the issue and just allow conversations to take place naturally in whatever language the participants feel more comfortable.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises. [email protected]