Forcing Mandarin on Hong Kong

« previous post | next post »

According to the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed by the Prime Ministers of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the United Kingdom (UK) governments on December 19, 1984, the way of life in Hong Kong would remain unchanged for a period of 50 years from the time of its handover to the PRC in 1997. This would have left Hong Kong unchanged until 2047.  I never for a moment thought that China would adhere to this agreement, and we see in countless ways how basic rights, laws, and socio-political institutions have been changing radically since the handover in 1997, only twenty years ago.  One of the most noticeable aspects of these changes has to do with language.

Cantonese is rapidly being pushed aside in favor of Mandarin, and this is not what the people of Hong Kong would have wanted to happen.  The threat to Cantonese is manifested in many ways, such as more and more schools being required to provide classroom instruction in Mandarin instead of Cantonese.

Now the next level of coercion to learn Mandarin, and a rather dramatic one at that, is being played out in one of the eight main universities of Hong Kong, though this is surely a test case and will eventually spread to other universities and colleges.  The crux of the controversy is conveyed in this article:

"Baptist University holds open meeting over controversial Mandarin test following 8-hour student standoff", by Ellie Ng in Hong Kong Free Press (1/23/18)

Here are the third and selected following paragraphs from the article:

Undergraduate students at the Baptist University are required to reach “foundation Putonghua proficiency” in order to graduate, according to a notice from the Language Centre. To meet the requirement, students must either enroll in a Mandarin course, or prove their language proficiency – such as by passing the exemption test.

Students have long been campaigning against the Mandarin proficiency requirement. In 2016, students organised a referendum on the issue, with nearly 90 per cent of 1,544 students voting in support of withdrawing the policy.

“The school has reassured us that the exemption test will only assess students’ basic Mandarin communication skills, but it did not keep its promise,” they wrote, referring to feedback suggesting the assessment was too difficult.

They complained that the assessment lacked an appeal system, adding that some students were told that they failed their tests for “strange reasons,” such as “their tone did not match that of the character.”

Without recognizing or explaining it, the article alludes to what I believe to be the root cause of the problem:

Chinese and English are the official languages in Hong Kong. Cantonese is commonly spoken in Hong Kong, as opposed to Mandarin in mainland China and Taiwan.

What is "Chinese"?  Whenever I read articles about language conflict in Hong Kong, I'm always struck by how willfully blind the antagonists are.  When they talk about "Chinese", they're actually simultaneously referring to separate languages — Mandarin and Cantonese.  By not acknowledging the stark linguistic differences between Mandarin and Cantonese, the legislation pertaining to "Chinese" will inevitably get bogged down in needless, yet painful, arguments over spoken language rights.  The situation gets even messier when "written Chinese" is added to the mix, since it is basically Mandarin in terms of grammar, syntax, and lexicon, but can be pronounced either in Cantonese or in Mandarin sounds.  These stark realities are almost never brought out into the open and addressed as the source of fundamental misunderstandings about the status and use of Cantonese and Mandarin in Hong Kong.  The role of English, which is still an official language of Hong Kong, and is the stipulated language of the courts, is another matter altogether.

The article continues:

Current affairs commentator Leung Kai-chi, who graduated from the Baptist University, wrote in an op-ed in Stand News stating that Mandarin skills should not be a graduation requirement, citing the importance of universities allowing students to freely pursue their own interests.

“Universities are not vocational training schools,” he wrote. “If universities can force students to do something because they think it is ‘good for their future,’ they can ban students from engaging in political activities with the same logic. How, then, can universities serve as the bastion of freedom?”

“If the university thinks that learning another language is beneficial for students, it could make them take foreign language courses without restricting the choice to Mandarin. It could be Japanese, Thai, Hakka or any other languages.”

I quite agree with Leung Kai-chi.  If the authorities want university and college graduates to learn another language beside Cantonese and English, why shouldn't they be allowed to choose German, Arabic, Hindi-Urdu, Tagalog, Hokkien / Taiwanese, and so forth?  Mandarin could be one among the eligible languages.  By singling out Mandarin as a requirement for graduation, the government is reneging on the agreement of the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 which promised that the people of Hong Kong would be allowed by the PRC to continue their customary way of life until 2047.

Additional articles on the protest at Baptist University:

"Hundreds of Students Protest at Baptist University over Mandarin Language Test" (Storyful [1/26/18])

"Students protest in Hong Kong over compulsory Mandarin" (AFP Videos [1/26/18])

"Hundreds protest in Hong Kong after two students suspended in Mandarin" (Venus Wu, Reuters [1/26/18])

Of the dozens of previous Language Log posts dealing with Cantonese, here are four that have to do with its current state of existence, especially in Hong Kong:

"Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese" (8/29/13)

"Speak Cantonese" (6/10/16)

"Cantonese: still the main spoken language of Hong Kong" (6/1/17)

"Cantonese is not dead yet" (6/9/17)

[h.t. Jichang Lulu]


  1. Arthur Waldron said,

    January 27, 2018 @ 6:04 pm

    Only the Mandarin readings of characters are taught. ANW

  2. Jenny Chu said,

    January 27, 2018 @ 11:33 pm

    Leaving things deliberately vague, so that each side can take their own interpretation of things, is a common diplomatic strategy – see also "One China" – but it is also extraordinary here in Hong Kong the degree to which damn near EVERYONE has gross misunderstandings about the main languages spoken here.

    – Cantonese is just slang
    – "Chinese" is a single language
    – It is impossible to write Cantonese
    – Mandarin is purer/better than Cantonese / Cantonese is "older" than Mandarin
    – It is impossible for foreigners to learn Cantonese / it is better for foreigners to learn Mandarin / Mandarin is "easier"
    – Cantonese has nine tones and Mandarin has four tones; therefore it's better for people to learn Mandarin


  3. John Rohsenow said,

    January 28, 2018 @ 4:13 am

    Requiring all college graduates to pass a test in Mandarin is of course different from requiring that all classes be taught in Mandarin, but I am reminded of the "Language Law: of 2001, which stated that all government officials in China should be able to communicate in Putonghua, although no specific standards or penalties were specified. [The Law is translated into Englishat the end of my article "Fifty Years of Script and Language Reform in the PRC: The Genesis of the Language Law of 2001" in M.L. Zhou (ed.) Language Policy in the PRC: Theory and Practice Since 1949 (2004).]
    I recall that around 1987 the HK government hired some linguists from around the world to come and advise them on setting up bilingual education programs for Mandarin in preparation for the retrocession in 1997. (Singapore also did similar when they decided to promote Putonghua in the 1980s.)
    Last thought: I wonder where Taiwan would be today if the ROC government had not insisted on teaching Kuoyu (Mandarin) in the schools after they reclaimed Taiwan back from Japan in 1945.

  4. David Morris said,

    January 28, 2018 @ 4:52 am

    I would have thought one goal of education was to be proficient in your country's official or dominant language (though certainly not to the detriment of your own language, if it is different).

  5. Guy_H said,

    January 28, 2018 @ 5:55 am

    The Chinese language media has been more specific about the nature of the test:

    The exemption test is in oral format (if it was written no doubt everyone would get 100%!) and has 3 components – first part is reading a short passage in Mandarin (10%), second part has 5 questions where you translate Cantonese to Mandarin (20%) and finally 7 oral questions (70%).

    Most complaints are generated at the final oral section – you have to talk for 1-2 minutes on a particular topic and possibly most HK students aren't great at speaking in Mandarin for such an extended amount of time. I'm actually rather shocked at the high failure rate in the first round of tests (70%).

    Also the lack of transparency around the assessment criteria is another issue. What is the point of marking someone down for using the wrong tone in an oral, if you actually understood what they were trying to say? I suspect many mainland Chinese wouldn't pass it either then. Another comment I've seen is that if the HK students were foreigners, would they have been marked down as easily for tones or are they being held to higher standards?

  6. ouen said,

    January 28, 2018 @ 7:29 am

    “I would have thought one goal of education was to be proficient in your country's official or dominant language (though certainly not to the detriment of your own language, if it is different).”

    Are Tamil speaking students expected to learn Hindi as a requirement for graduation in India? Is their inability to speak Hindi a threat to stability in India?

  7. Guy_H said,

    January 28, 2018 @ 7:51 am

    Ouen, the poster above did not say that HK's lack of proficiency would be a threat to the stability of China. He was asking if learning China's official language was an appropriate educational goal.

  8. ~flow said,

    January 28, 2018 @ 9:07 am

    @David Morris—and maybe we have to re-think "country-hood" or "country-ness", what it means to 'be an' and to 'live in an' entity termed a 'country'. Many, many newspaper comments that are made against those cases where ethnic groups or otherwise demand a degree of cultural, linguistic or political autonomy or independence from an authority acting in the name of a nation or The State use arguments according to which by-and-large successful entities like, say, Switzerland and indeed the EU couldn't or shouldn't exist or at least should change their language policy if nothing else. Strangely, some of the same people that assert that German, Danish, and Portuguese must have all the rights of an official language in the context of the EU then go and deny those rights to Catalan, because, you know, "that's Spain so of course it's Spanish for them".

  9. Su-Chong Lim said,

    January 28, 2018 @ 6:04 pm

    I have for years got a free Cantonese101 brief "lesson" complete with audio ported to my email daily, and have dutifully gone through the lessons. My Cantonese is by no means fluent, but I daily come across what appear to be odd (non-Cantonese sounding) constructions. To be certain I have run these examples across to a native Cantonese speaker, and she assures me that these "odd" constructions are indeed non-colloquial, and would be considered stilted in everyday speech. The fact that a Cantonese corresponding sound can be found for the form that is transcribed directly from correct Mandarin phraseology doesn't make it Cantonese.

    The recurrent offenders are using common Mandarin characters e.g.很,吃,看,喝,不 when authentic Cantonese would use a completely different word.

    I've long since resigned myself to the fact that this course does not teach authentic Cantonese. But I wonder if it is part of a larger phenomenon, and I'm curious as to the motivations of the perpetuators.

  10. B.Ma said,

    January 29, 2018 @ 4:31 am

    "What is the point of marking someone down for using the wrong tone in an oral, if you actually understood what they were trying to say? I suspect many mainland Chinese wouldn't pass it either then."

    But we are talking about university students, and I suspect most mainland university students would get the tones correct, even if they would pronounce things differently in their home town/in private.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    January 29, 2018 @ 9:17 am

    From Jichang Lulu:

    There's a new piece by Brian Hioe for New Bloom with this interesting paragraph:

    In truth, there already is precedent in the Sinophone world for language bans aimed at extinguishing a separate sense of identity. When the KMT came to Taiwan from China after its defeat in the Chinese Civil War, for example, they attempted to ban the public use of Taiwanese in order to ensure that residents of Taiwan would come to speak Mandarin. Namely, members of the KMT wished to integrate Taiwan back into their vision of China after its half century of Japanese colonization. Particularly after the uprisings which followed the 228 Massacre in 1947, the KMT also wished to diminish the Taiwanese sense of identity as distinctive from Chinese identity in order to prevent future uprisings.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    January 29, 2018 @ 10:22 am

    More from Jichang Lulu:

    You might find interesting: the actual Mandarin test, and a view on its difficulty.

    The exam must be rather difficult for so many Cantonese-educated students to fail it. All of them are of course fully literate in formal written Mandarin, and for many Mandarin was the language used to teach the Chinese subject in secondary school (as is increasingly the case under the government's PMIC (Putonghua as Medium of Instruction in Chinese) programme). Let's remember than one of the main anti-Putonghua-test characters in this battle, Andrew Chan Lok-Hang 陈乐行, leader of the 'Societas Linguistica Cantonensis', was actually doing an internship in a Mainland hospital, so I imagine he can communicate in Mandarin.

    On PMIC:

    Another interesting question (to which I couldn't find an answer after a cursory look at Baptist's website) is what are the Cantonese-language requirements for admission and graduation for Mainland and foreign students.

    I think the difficulty of the exam and the comparison to Cantonese requirements are key to judging the positions of the students and university administrators in this dispute.

  13. Fluxor said,

    January 29, 2018 @ 7:04 pm

    By singling out Mandarin as a requirement for graduation, the government is reneging on the agreement …

    This isn't a government mandated policy. It's a Baptist University requirement. Quite different.

    The test itself is awfully designed, in my opinion, as it essentially asks students to compose a verbal essay on a complex topic on the spot in an unfamiliar language.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    January 30, 2018 @ 12:16 am

    I have spent enough time teaching and advising in Hong Kong universities to know that Baptist would not have taken this major step without the consultation and encouragement of the government. It is a test case for the other universities.

  15. Guy_H said,

    January 30, 2018 @ 1:26 pm

    The third question was so made for this blog…
    請問你對現代人提筆忘字的現象有什麼意見 ?(計時2分鐘)
    Please give your opinion on the phenomenon of "picking up the pen and forgetting how to write". (Speak for 2 mins).
    The context of the question was technological input of Chinese characters causing people to forget how to write Chinese properly.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    January 30, 2018 @ 8:51 pm

    Very good catch for LL, Guy_H!

  17. bin said,

    January 30, 2018 @ 10:30 pm

    I did not see from this post that the Mandarin requirement is imposed by the government of China. If Hong Kong universities and schools themselves decided to require their students to acquire proficiency in Mandarin, rather than on order from Beijing, then this has nothing to do with the Agreement you eagerly cited.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    January 31, 2018 @ 12:49 am

    "Hundreds protest in Hong Kong after two students suspended in Mandarin test row", by Venus Wu, Reuters (1/26/18)

  19. Victor Mair said,

    January 31, 2018 @ 1:04 am

    "Hong Kong should deal firmly with university unrest", by Zhang Qingbo, Global Times (1/29/18)

    "Student protesters against compulsory Mandarin punished", by Mimi Leung, University World News (1/25/18, Issue No:490)

  20. Victor Mair said,

    January 31, 2018 @ 7:45 am

    From Jichang Lulu:

    The PRC Liaison Office isn't known to micromanage Hong Kong university curricula; a written directive specifically concerning the details of an exam is unlikely to emerge, or even exist. But I don't think that an acquaintance with the politics, institutional governance and social and economic dynamics of today's Hong Kong could inform a description of this as a purely academic dispute involving only Baptist's administrators and students.

    By allowing or encouraging beloved state tabloid The Globule (Huanqiu shibao 环球屎报) to virulently attack a student, the Relevant Organs of the CCP propaganda system have asserted their jurisdiction and interest in this issue. If Beijing didn't care, propaganda organs wouldn't be at it.

    On the independence (or lack thereof) of university administration in Hong Kong, a recent source is Kevin Carrico's report.

    Both sides of this dispute, and local observers, understand this as a political issue, whence part of its linguistic interest. The arcana of Baptist admin paperwork are anecdotal in comparison.

  21. Eidolon said,

    February 1, 2018 @ 8:17 pm

    "I would have thought one goal of education was to be proficient in your country's official or dominant language (though certainly not to the detriment of your own language, if it is different)."

    That cuts to the heart of the matter. The official languages of Hong Kong are "Chinese" and English, with "Chinese" traditionally standing for spoken Cantonese. The official language of the People's Republic of China, however, is Standard Mandarin.

    The education system in the People's Republic of China indeed promotes proficiency in Standard Mandarin, which is used as the primary language of instruction in all Sinitic regions, and is now also being pushed in minority regions, as well as the primary language of all government related functions, TV, etc, with a few exceptions made for provincial TV.

    This is a matter of law in the PRC, specifically the "Law of the People's Republic of China on the Standard Spoken and Written Chinese Language (Order of the President No.37)". While, as with everything in China, implementation is not nearly as simple as the law dictates, the goal of the law is straight forward – to promote Standard Mandarin as the national language through all institutions.

    Hong Kong, however, operates by a different set of laws, specifically the Hong Kong Basic Law, which was negotiated as a compromise during the British hand over of Hong Kong. The Basic Law specifies that "Chinese" – practically speaking, Cantonese – should be the official language of Hong Kong, along with English, and that "the socialist system and policies [of China] shall not be practised in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years." Thus, the language laws of the People's Republic of China, which constitutes a policy of China, should not apply to Hong Kong until 50 years has passed after the hand over, which was in 1997.

    To most observers, the Chinese government has been violating the terms of this agreement, especially as of late, when it suppressed the democracy movement in Hong Kong. Forcing or coercing Hong Kong universities to adopt China's Standard Mandarin policies would be another violation. While I doubt the UK can do anything about it – and indeed it doesn't seem the current UK government cares very much, considering the mess it's gotten itself in vis-a-vis the European Union – China's failure to honor its international agreements is still troubling. The international system is built upon treaties and agreements between states; ignoring these treaties and agreements undermines the very basis of the modern system.

  22. John Rohsenow said,

    February 8, 2018 @ 7:21 am

    In offline discussions about the official language policy in HK, I was referred back to another of Victor Mair's posts which he did not mention above: "Hong Kong Multilingualism and Polyscriptalism" (July 26, 2010)
    (, which starts off:
    "Because of Hong Kong's colonial heritage and topolectal position, students here are forced to juggle three languages (English, Cantonese, and Mandarin) and two scripts (Roman alphabet and Chinese characters), the so-called policy of “biliterate trilingualism (兩文三語)” for schools and the Civil Service since the handover to the People's Republic of China in 1997…."
    Another paper assessing both the official policy and the actualities of the situation is: "The status of Cantonese in the education policy of Hong Kong", (

RSS feed for comments on this post