Two Ways China is Linguistically Cleansing Hongkongers (Chapman Chen from Local Press)

Summary: As shown by a recent i-cable TV documentary, HK local students in one school prefer to speak Putonghua due to homogenization by a huge number of students from Communist China; whereas in another school, students who prefer to speak HK Cantonese are coerced to speak Putonghua. This reflects two of the means used by China to linguistically cleanse Hongkongers: 1, Flooding with immigrants for homogenization; 2, Executive imposition of the colonizer’s language at school. Language expresses and constructs identity (David Evans 2014). Hong Kong’s voice is intrinsically linked to its identity and differentiation from China (Tam and Cummins 2015). Now, already 70% of primary schools and 40% of secondary schools in HK teach the Chinese subject in Putonghua. HK Cantonese sociolinguistics expert, Prof. Robert Bauer, warns that the current trend continues, HK Cantonese will eventually die out, just like Cantonese in Canton, China.

This is against Article 2 of the 1992 UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, which states that “Persons belonging to ……. linguistic minorities ……have the right to …… use their own language, in private and in public, freely and without interference or any form of discrimination”; Article 26 of The 1996 Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights adopted at the conclusion of the World Conference on Linguistic Rights, which states that “All language communities are entitled to an education which will enable their members to acquire a full command of their own language”; and The Girona Manifesto on Linguistic Rights developed by International PEN in 2011, which states that “Every linguistic community has the right for its language to be used as an official language in its territory”, and ” School instruction must contribute to the prestige of the language spoken by the linguistic community of the territory.”

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Cantonese vs Putonghua in HK Schools

Recently, the News Lancet program of i-cable TV, Hong Kong, interviewed students and teachers of two primary schools, one in Tai Po, and one in Tin Shui Wai in relation to the use of Hong Kong Cantonese and Putonghua. In the first school, despite the principal’s encouragement to speak HK Cantonese, the students prefer to speak Putonghua both in class and after class, for half of the students come from Mainland China and their mother tongue is Putonghua. The remaining students are accustomed to communicating with them in Putonghua. The principal has even noticed that many a local student speak HK Cantonese with a Putonghua accent. This phenomenon is very common in the New Territories, which is close to the border. In the second school, most of the students prefer to speak HK Cantonese but the medium of instruction is Putonghua. They would be required to write “I will not speak Cantonese again” a number of times for punishment should they be caught speaking Cantonese in class.

2 Strategies of Linguistic Cleansing of Hongkongers

The above episode reflects two of the ways China is linguistically cleansing Hongkongers. The first one is to flood Hong Kong with colonizing immigrants (150 per day without Hong Kong’s screening) in order to replace and/or homogenize Hongkongers. The second one is to executively impose the colonizer’s language, Putonghua, on local students. (There are, of course, other strategies used by China for linguistic cleansing of Hongkongers, e.g., buying up or co-producing with local entertainment companies and replacing HK Cantonese-speaking programs and films with Putonghua-speaking ones.)

HK Cantonese Language and HK Identity

Language expresses and constructs identity (Bucholtz & Hall, 2005:35; David Evans, 2014). Writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1981), a citizen of the once colonized Kenyan, stresses, “Language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we perceive ourselves and our place in the world. . . . Language is thus inseparable from ourselves as a community of human beings with a specific form and character, a specific history, a specific relationship to the world.”

In their article “The Death of Cantonese?” published in the HK magazine Timeout, Tam and Cummins (2015) wrote, “Language is the tongue that gives a nation its voice. And Hong Kong’s voice has never been as intrinsically linked to its identity as it is right now. Cantonese isn’t just the city’s language; it’s one of the many yardsticks by which Hongkongers measure their cultural and political differences from the rest of the Mainland. . . ”

Colonizer Prohibiting Native Tongues

According to Margulis and Nowakoski (1996), During colonization, colonizers usually imposed their language onto the peoples they colonized, forbidding natives to speak their mother tongues. In some cases colonizers systematically prohibited native languages.” Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o asserts that the process “annihilate[s] a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves.”

Thanks to the Hong Kong educational authorities’ financial enticement and executive threat, now 70% of primary schools and 40% of secondary schools in HK teach the Chinese subject and in some cases even other subjects in Putonghua.

HK Cantonese Endangered

As a telephone-survey from 2015 revealed, a combined total of 77% of the HK respondents indicated the language was endangered (Bacon-Shone, Bolton, and Luke 2015:27).

Professor Robert Bauer (2018), an American scholar specialized in the field of HK Cantonese phonology and sociolinguistics, warns that the current trend continues, HK Cantonese will eventually stop existing. “If we want to find a portent of the future fate of Hong Kong Cantonese, I believe all we need do is to look at what has happened to Guangzhou Cantonese which in my view is a harbinger of things to come in Hong Kong. In Guangzhou the language has gone into a sharp decline and become essentially marginalized, as it has ceased being spoken in official domains and the schools some years ago.” HK Cantonese, asserts Bauer, “is becoming an endangered language within the next few generations as schoolchildren switch over to speaking Pŭtōnghuà; and that means it could eventually even die out.”


Photo credit: News Lancet, i-cable TV

Text:Chapman Chen from Local Press: