China Power

Lost in Translation: The Hong Kong Government’s Dual Messaging Amid Protests

Why Carrie Lam’s ostensible concession means nothing to Hong Kong activists.

By Kai Yui Samuel Chan and Elizabeth Lui for
Lost in Translation: The Hong Kong Government’s Dual Messaging Amid Protests

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks to reporters during a press conference in Hong Kong, July 22, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Vincent Yu

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced in a press conference on July 9 that the controversial extradition bill was “dead.” The majority of foreign press characterized the pronouncement as Lam’s “most emphatic promise yet.” Those sympathetic to the cause of Hong Kong activists were quick to celebrate their victory over the government. There were, however, no celebratory events among Hong Kong activists themselves; instead, they expressed anger and deep frustration with Lam’s statement.

Why weren’t Hong Kong activists satisfied?

The devil, as always, is in the details. The core demand of the anti-extradition bill activists has remained consistent: nothing short of a “withdrawal” of the extradition bill. Their insistence on the wording is legally grounded on the city’s Legislative Council Rules of Procedure Article 64, which stipulates that the legislative member or public officer in charge of the bill may either “withdraw” or “postpone” it in legislative proceedings.

So far, Lam has avoided both terms in all her press conferences: on June 15, the bill was “suspended”; on June 21, her administration had “put a stop” on the bill; and now, the bill is “dead.” Lam claimed her choice of wording is as good as if not better than a “withdrawal” — after all, what is dead can never be resurrected. The difference? None of these terms exists in Hong Kong’s legislative language. In short, whatever rhetorical force “death” has, it has no bearing on the legislative status of the controversial bill itself, which had already entered into the stage of second hearing and could begin there at any point of time should the government will it in the future.

Even if for Lam, a “dead” bill is as good as a “withdrawn” bill, there are reasons for her to deliberately avoid the word. Locally, she cannot be perceived as rewarding activism, lest it further embolden the civil society and weaken China’s grasp over the city. Internationally, however, she wants to be seen as making sufficient concessions so as to restore the government’s reputation abroad. This dual incentive structure is clearly exemplified in the gap between her usage of language. On June 15, while she stated in English that the government had decided to “suspend indefinitely” any amendment to Hong Kong’s extradition laws, in Cantonese she picked the phrase “暫緩,” the literal translation of which is “to delay temporarily”.

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If Lam’s equivocal use of words was a tactic to fool foreign correspondents, it seems to have done the trick. Subsequent reports on various foreign media outlets following the press conference on June 15 seemed to fall for Lam’s wordplay, calling the announcement a “striking U-turn” by Lam’s administration and thus “an amazing win” for Hong Kong. Notably, the line of thought in these news reports very much followed the rhetoric employed by the SAR government.

As for her choice of words on July 9, while in English political language saying “a bill dies” naturally means that the bill will no longer be scheduled for voting, such vocabulary does not exist in Hong Kong’s legislative language. In fact, in the Cantonese version of Lam’s statement, she chose the idiom “壽終正寢,” which means roughly that a person or a thing has run its due course and died naturally. In the ears of Hong Kong activists, Lam’s statement is nothing less than a mockery: the bill has died naturally, but its death has nothing to do with your activist efforts or any fault of my administration.

The administration’s external PR playbook went far beyond mere wordplay. After Hong Kong activists briefly occupied the Legislative Council on July 1, Lam decided to hold a press conference at 4 a.m. in the morning on the next day. Hong Kong commentators at first had fun joking about how nobody would watch a press conference at 4 a.m., but Lam’s intention soon became apparent: if one converts the time differences, she was speaking at 4 p.m. in Washington and 9 p.m. in London. Indeed, in the press conference, Lam took care to answer English questions at length and provide well-scripted answers to the international audience, making sure she had the first word internationally about the LegCo occupation on July 1. Alas, she succeeded — the ”violence” of Hong Kong activists made international headlines the next day, and it was only much later that the voices and reasons for the occupation were heard by the international audience.

Lam’s approach to the foreign press is striking because it used to be quite different. In fact, only last year, Lam said in a press conference that answering the same question again in English is a waste of time. Her drastic turn now demonstrates that Hong Kong’s democratic movement has become more international than ever. Hong Kong activists attempted to put their cause on the agenda of the G-20 meeting in Osaka by advertising it prior to the meeting in almost every G-20 member state. Hong Kong citizens residing overseas, along with their international allies, have rallied for the cause and petitioned their representatives in their respective countries. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act has been reintroduced in the United States with bicameral and bipartisan support. Various members of the U.K. government have also spoken up in support of the protestors, calling the Chinese government to respect the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong citizens as set down in the Sino-British joint declaration. Against such a backdrop, Lam seemed to have little choice but to shape the rhetoric by exploiting “linguistic loopholes.”

The tactic of “double language” has long been adopted by Beijing, which is acutely aware of the need to steer global discourse to its own favor, and is ready to accommodate such need through its enormous propaganda machine. For instance, Global Times, one of many state-owned media outlets, explicitly defended the Chinese Communist Party’s crackdown on the protestors in the summer of 1989 in a rare editorial in the wake of June 4 this year. However, the passage was only allowed to be circulated in English, and any attempt to translate the piece into Chinese was immediately censored on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Such a move, again, is arguably yet another attempt to serve two distinctly different audiences. For those in the West, the CCP is sending an unmistakable message that China’s heavy-handed grip over the civil society in the country remains resolute, and that the Party is immunized against political turmoil. Any attempt to intervene in the internal affairs of China, the editorial claims, will bear no meaningful fruit. Back at home, however, the Party seems to have realized that even the mere mention of Tiananmen Square at such politically sensitive time can still provoke its people, and thus refrained from even making the Global Times article available in Chinese.

It is safe to assume that world leaders, at least to some extent, rely upon international media reports to strategize their foreign policy in relation to Hong Kong and China. Foreign newspapers are also an imperative source of information for concerned citizens worldwide who have been lobbying their governments to support democratic causes in Hong Kong. Lam’s administration, along with the Chinese Communist Party, will play every card in their hands to shape the international discourse on their terms. Linguistic nuances and disparities lost in translation are rarely innocent — failing to spot them could, in turn, enable Beijing to surreptitiously orchestrate and curate international views. Now more than ever, the world has to watch what China is doing, and it has to watch more carefully.

Kai Yui Samuel Chan is currently a Ph.D. student in Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Elizabeth Lui is a researcher at The University of Hong Kong.