“They say if you want to kill a city, you kill its language,” said Claudia Mo, Member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council, in a recent video for Vox Borders. Mo was referring to the fact that in recent years, Hong Kong’s evening news has been broadcasted in Mandarin, China’s national language, even though the vast majority of Hong Kongers speak Cantonese.
Since Hong Kong returned to Chinese control in 1997, the importance of Mandarin in the special administrative region has grown dramatically due to Hong Kong’s growing interconnectedness with China. Since the turnover, an average of 150 Chinese mainlanders have immigrated to Hong Kong each day, and with the mainland’s large economy and huge population, being able to speak Mandarin has all but become a requirement for any job involving finance, trade and tourism. In 1996 it was reported that 65,892 residents in Hong Kong spoke Mandarin as their first language; 20 years later, in 2016, that number has risen to 131,406 residents: a 99.4 percent increase. This has led to many headaches in Hong Kong’s education sector, where parents debate whether they should be sending their children to schools taught in Mandarin or Cantonese.
Currently about 70 percent of Hong Kong’s primary schools use Mandarin as the language of instruction and there have even been reports of videos being used in classrooms that demonize Cantonese and promote Mandarin. In large part this is because in Hong Kong Mandarin is slowly coming to be seen by some as a more useful language than Cantonese. Maria Wang, a Hong Konger whose native tongue is Cantonese and mother of three, has decided to send her daughters to a Chinese International School where they only speak Mandarin or English. In an article with Quartz she was quoted as saying, “Mandarin speakers can write better Chinese” and mentioned that “There’s a lot of working relations with China now.”
Her thoughts echo those of Kevin Yeung Yun-hung, Hong Kong’s education chief, who caused controversy when he suggested on the radio that experts should consider whether Chinese language should be taught in Mandarin, adding that “the future development of Chinese language learning across the globe will rely mainly on Mandarin.” The question that was asked to Yeung was in response to an article released early last year by a former official from China’s State Language Commission, which said that the city’s official language should be Mandarin since it is the “commonly used language of the Han people.”
While Yeung’s comments may have been ill received by the vast majority of Hong Kongers, what he is saying is based in fact: today Mandarin is by far the most spoken and used dialect of Chinese. There is no such thing as one Chinese language; rather “Chinese” refers to the many different dialects which are spoken throughout China’s provinces. Many of these dialects are completely unintelligible from one another, which made governing the vast nation incredibly difficult. Thus, in 1909 the national government made Mandarin, the dialect spoken in Beijing and used by the courts, China’s first national language. When the Communist Party took control of the mainland they continued to use Mandarin as their official language as well, having the dialect taught throughout the country and the countryside, which slowly diminished China’s many other dialects, including Cantonese.
During this tumultuous part of Chinese history, though, Hong Kong was under the rule of the British, who were ambivalent as to whether the local Chinese spoke Cantonese or Mandarin. As such Cantonese, which is the dialect of Guangdong, the mainland province bordering Hong Kong, thrived in British Hong Kong as if in a time capsule. Cantonese surged in popularity from the 1970s to the 1990s thanks to Hong Kong exporting its language and culture by way of Hong Kong martial arts films and cultural icons like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, but that time has passed. Since then mainland China’s economy has grown exponentially, making Mandarin much more important in Hong Kong. Now everywhere “Chinese” is used as an official language — China, Taiwan, Singapore, and the UN – that means Mandarin, making it the most spoken language in the world. Simply put, if you enroll in a Chinese class overseas, it is a Mandarin class.
With all this being said, though, Cantonese is by no means in danger of dying out in Hong Kong. Since 1996 the percentage of the population who uses Cantonese has slightly grown: from 88.7 percent to 88.9 percent and the actual population who speak Cantonese in Hong Kong as a mother tongue has grown as well, from 5,196,240 to 6,264,700. Even Carrie Lam, chief executive of Hong Kong and one whom many see as a supporter of integration with the mainland, weighed in on the subject. When asked by reporters about Yeung’s comments, Lam said, “We are speaking Cantonese every day, so this is a non-issue.” When pushed further and asked what her native language was, she responded, “Sorry, I don’t answer silly questions.”
Mandarin is more popular today in Hong Kong than it ever has been, and it will only continue to grow in popularity; however, this reflects the fact that Hong Kong and China are also becoming more interconnected as time goes on. When Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, it was promised that it would have a high degree of autonomy for 50 years, during which time the mainland government would stay out of Hong Kong’s internal politics. Regardless, though, Hong Kong is a part of China and as the two economies continually become more intertwined and the border slowly disappears, Mandarin will become more widely used in Hong Kong. However, that doesn’t mean Cantonese will die out; instead it will continue to be spoken alongside Mandarin.
Yet even though Cantonese is not in any danger of disappearing in Hong Kong, this issue resonates with the people of Hong Kong. The growing use of Mandarin is a reminder that that they are not independent, and China is slowly starting to integrate Hong Kong back into the mainland. That’s a difficult reality for many Hong Kong citizens who see themselves as culturally and, indeed, linguistically different. All physical and diplomatic barriers between Hong Kong and China are set to expire July 1, 2047; the one barrier that may not fall by then is the language barrier.
Kevin T. Bielicki has worked in policy analysis in Beijing.