On January 24, Ronald Chin, President of the Hong Kong Baptist University, announced suspension of two BU students, who, on January 17, went with other students to the Language Centre to protest against the unfairness of the University’s requirement of students to pass a Putonghua exam as a pre-requisite for graduation. Chin alleged that the two students had threatened teachers at the centre physically and verbally, but as can be seen from the video records, only one student uttered a Cantonese word meaning dick, and no students used any violence. Cantonese, the mother tongue of most Hongkongers and one of the de facto official oral languages of Hong Kong (the other one being English), is a 3000-year-old, elegant language still spoken by 0.1 billion people; while Putonghua, the official language of China, has a history of at the most three to four hundred years. Many Hongkongers think that it is discriminatory to require Hong Kong college students to pass a Putonghua exam as a pre-requisite for graduation, while Mainland students studying in HK are not required to take any course or exam in Cantonese. Quite a few HK netizens regard this policy as promotion of colonization by China, in view of the fact that Tibetans and Uygurians are forbidden to speak or write their mother language in their schools in China.
The Baptist University requires Hong Kong local students to complete a Putonghua course and to pass a Putonghua test held by its Language Centre before they can graduate. But students whose mother tongue is not Chinese or who have taken Chinese exams in China are exempted. Last year, the school put forth a Putonghua exemption exam for local students. But the pass rate is only 30 percent. The students attribute this to the assessment standard being unclear.
On January 17, a few students, including Lau Chi-kei, Chair of the HKBU Student Union, and Chan Lok-hang, a final year student of Chinese medicine, went to the Language Centre of the Baptist University, requesting the staff there to explain how they assessed the students’ Putonghua and to produce the rubrics concerned. But the staff refused to respond. And despite the students’ repeated requests, more senior staff of the university did not come to talk to the students. The situation dragged on for eight hours. Then Lau Chi-kei uttered the Cantonese word, lan2卵, which means dick, in the following sentence, “You said you wouldn’t the dick respond, wouldn’t respond to the students’ demands.” But as can be seen from the video records, none of the students present at the scene uttered any other swearwords. Nor did they use any physical violence. They did not even make any threatening gestures, although one expatriate teacher at the scene claimed that they were being threatened by the students. Many netizens comment that encountered with gross injustice, it is but normal human reaction to utter a swearword or two.
On January 24 morning, Lau Chi-kei and Chan Lok-hang publicly apologized for their behaviour on January 17. Unexpectedly, on the afternoon of the same day, the President of the Baptist University announced temporary suspension of Lau Chi-kei and Chan Lok-hang for having breached the code of conduct in orally insulting and physically threatening teaching staff of the university.
Subsequently, in a press conference held on the same day, Lau and Chan stressed that on January 17, they only aimed at reform of university administration and did not use any violence. They condemned the President of HKBU for confounding right and wrong, for paying no heed to students’ studies and safety. It turns out that in recent days, after the January 17 incident, when Chan Lok-hang was studying as an HKBU intern in Canton, he received more than 100 death threats from China netizens. He tried to seek help from the university via a district councilor named Clarisse Yeung. But the President of the school did not send a message that the school would provide help when necessary until Lau fled back to Hong Kong on the morning of January 24. And the President has never sent any other word of comfort or reassurance to Chan.
Lau and Chan said, “We are now forced to take a path of no return; from now on, we will struggle for students’ rights and welfare without cares!”
The languages that should be grasped as one of the requirements of graduation are written Chinese and English. Oral languages do not need to be assessed. Even if students’ oral speech is to be assessed, it should only be Cantonese and English. For Cantonese is the mother tongue of most Hongkongers and university students. According to the Basic Law, the official languages of Hong Kong are Chinese and English, but it is not specified whether “Chinese” means Cantonese or Putonghua as far as oral speech is concerned. Nonetheless, for one hundred and seventy years, Cantonese and English have been the de facto official spoken languages of Hong Kong. Since 1842, in all official situations in Hong Kong, including court, government departments, Executive and Legislative Councils, schools, mass media, etc., either Cantonese or English is spoken.
Many Hongkongers think that to require local students to pass a Putonghua exam before they can graduate without requiring Mainland students studying in local universities to sit for a Cantonese exam is ethnic discrimination against Hongkongers and promotion of China’s colonization of Hong Kong. In fact, in China, the Uyghur language is banned in schools in Xinjiang, and the Tibetan language banned in schools in Tibet.
Various student bodies, e.g., the HKBU Student Union, Student Christian Movement of Hong Kong, and Hong Kong Federation of students, are now considering staging strikes or occupation of the campus this Friday or as soon as possible, in order to support the two suspended students and to demand the University to cancel the Putonghua exam. or test as a pre-requisite for graduation.
Hong Kong Cantonese is a tripartite compound language comprising the Pak Yuet languages, classical Chinese, and loan words from the West. Pak Yuet is a group of ancient minorities living in Southern China, closely related to Vietnamese and Thai. Still spoken by more than 100 million people all over the world, Cantonese can be traced back to the Spring and Autumn Period around three thousand years ago. It is a reservoir of elegant and orthodox Chinese culture and languages. Instead of suppressing the Cantonese language in Hong Kong, the British colonial Government of Hong Kong used to preserve and promote it.
Contrastively, Putonghua is an artificial language imposed by the Chinese Community Party on Mainland Chinese. Even taking into account Mandarin, Putonghua has a history of only three to four hundred years. Due to the mandatory State policy of using Putonghua as the teaching medium at school, Cantonese on the Chinese Mainland has been deteriorating readily. Only Hong Kong has well preserved this time-honoured and elegant language. In recent years, however, the Education Bureau of the Hong Kong Government, which is largely appointed by China, has been luring by financial subsidy schools in Hong Kong to teach the Chinese subject in Putonghua instead of Cantonese.