by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Wpcpey/WikiCommons/CC

THE SUSPENSION of two students following demonstrations in Hong Kong against a new Mandarin requirement for graduation at Hong Kong Baptist University has provoked outrage among many. In particular, the language test is probably part of long-term efforts by Beijing aimed at curbing the use of Cantonese in Hong Kong and only allowing the use of Mandarin, in the hopes that this can dampen Hong Kong identity.

Certainly, this is the way that the test has been perceived, which is what has led to protests. Students cite the fact that 70% of those that took the new Mandarin test failed the exam, including a language ambassador for Mandarin at the school.

The student suspensions followed 30 students demonstrating at Hong Kong Baptist University’s language students, which led to an eight hour stand-off between students and university staff. The two suspensions have provoked more outrage, leading hundreds of students to demonstrate in Hong Kong.

What has been further outraging is that one of the suspended students, who was undertaking an internship at a hospital in China, later received hundreds of death threats at the hospital, leading him to end his internship earlier. Apart from the view that the university is acting in line with disciplinary measures from Beijing aimed at curbing political dissidence, Hong Kong Baptist University is seen as failing to defend its students.

The possibility of Beijing taking action to limit the use of Cantonese in Hong Kong has been raised many times in past years. This was, for example, the plot of one of the segments from the film Ten Years, which posed a dystopian vision of Hong Kong under Chinese rule. Some have also pointed to the increasing use of Mandarin in Hong Kong or the increased visibility of simplified characters in Hong Kong as threats to Cantonese, understood as a crucial aspect of a distinct Hong Kong identity, and as a symbol of that the city is now under rule of the Chinese party-state.

It is easy to see how Mandarin language tests which are a requirement for graduation, but which are difficult enough that most students cannot pass them, would touch upon such fears. And it is also not surprising that pro-Beijing apologists in Hong Kong have attempted to play down the significance of tests, for example, suggesting that this is no different than any other language requirement for graduation for college students, or downplaying the difficulty of the test.

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.

It is not impossible that China may decide that it should, in fact, adopt similar brute force measures in order to dampen Hong Kong’s separate sense of identity. This would certainly lead to further demonstrations in Hong Kong but, again, in the course of a few years, Hong Kong has already become a place where political candidates are prevented from running or disqualified once elected based on their political views—as most recently seen in the case of Agnes Chow of Demosisto—in which mobs are mobilized to attack critics of China, and in which political dissidents face arrest or possible kidnapping to China.

Moreover, China and its intermediaries in the Hong Kong government could already weather the Umbrella Movement, which mobilized hundreds of thousands. And there has not been mass protests approaching that scale in any way since then, even over such issues which directly touch on China’s encroachment upon political freedoms in Hong Kong. It is altogether possible that China could simply decide that it would, in fact, be able to weather any protests from more restrictive measures against Cantonese and decide that it is in its long-term interest to assert such measures now, rather than later.

Despite that there have been protests regarding the suspensions and these tests, they also have not been large-scale enough that they will discourage the Hong Kong government or Beijing. It will be seen, then, whether this will indeed happen. The future of Hong Kong continues to look grim, then.

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