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Cantonese on Hong Kong’s Side, Mandarin on Beijing’s Side: How Do Hong Kong People Express Their Political View Through Languages

In some cultures, it is rare, or even impossible, to sit down with friends and exchange political views openly. Alternatively, implicit messages are transmitted verbally or non-verbally with reference to the cultural-specific context. For these language communities, successful communication requires rich cultural context. As a result, less confrontation and more complacency are observed in these communities such as in China and Korea. But what will happen if there is some unneglectable social problem? How do people from high-context culture talk about the elephant in the room? Hong Kong is such a place trapped in sensitive political issues in recent years. How do Hong Kong people express their political opinion, and how do listeners perceive such implicit information with little misunderstanding? The answer is the language they use.

It is a blessing and a curse for Hong Kong to be a highly multicultural society that nourishes dozens of languages. Due to its colonization history, English is one of the three official spoken languages in Hong Kong. Cantonese, as 88% of citizens’ native language, can be heard from the water markets to the high court. The third official language, Mandarin Chinese, had been taught in many schools since the handover in 1997. All three languages are recognised as official languages, while each of them is used in contrastive culture-related contexts. Each language is assigned with a ‘class’, linguistically. English ranks the highest. Using English indicates the speaker’s literacy and social class. Cantonese is an essential way to manifest one’s Hong Kong identity. Mandarin is strongly related to mainland China’s influence on Hong Kong people’s political and daily life. Some negative aspects of this influence are emphasised, such as the Mandarin-speaking parallel traders flooding into Hong Kong to buy milk powder. Thus, Mandarin ranks the lowest in the language hierarchy. In a university in Hong Kong, Mandarin course tests turned students’ rage on and caused chaos in 2018.

We can see the subtle but clear differences among Hong Kong people’s attitudes towards these three languages in the first parade against the extradition bill on 9th June 2019. The slogan chanted by the protesters was composed of four rhyming phrases in Cantonese. But when it came to English, there were only three words – ‘No Extradition Bill’. No Mandarin was ever heard in the parade.

In this specific political occasion, the absence of Mandarin shows the strong relationship between this language and certain political opinions. What happens in Hong Kong people’s daily life? What do they do when they cannot chant their political view? In this high-cultural context society, the language choice that Hong Kong people make when they communicate with mainland people is the key.

University campus is the place where ideas are exchanged, challenged, and confronted. It is also where inevitable interaction between Hong Kong and mainland China students exist. The tricky thing is, Hong Kong students, as most of them have studied Mandarin in school, are capable of understanding and speaking Mandarin. However, the same does not apply to newcomers from mainland China. As English is adopted as the instruction language in Hong Kong universities, nearly all mainland Chinese students studying in Hong Kong have little knowledge about Cantonese when they start their studies. The uneven knowledge of language between Hong Kong students and mainland Chinese students makes the former have more freedom of choice during their communication. Therefore, when Hong Kong students are willing to take the initiative to speak Mandarin with a mainland Chinese student, they show their willingness to communicate.

Unfortunately, if English, as the high language in society, is used by Hong Kong students, it is to show a covert sense of authority. In the worst situation, as the party holding more language resource, they speak Cantonese and refuse to speak Mandarin. By doing so, they are implicitly rejecting the governance of Beijing. Through speaking Cantonese, Hong Kong students increase their solidarity with other local students who also hold anti-Beijing government views. The intrinsic relationship between political view and language choice groups pro-democratic people together. At the same time, languages are used to exclude people who might have a different opinion. Staying in their language comfort zone, these students build their political comfort zone among Cantonese speakers through using Cantonese as a filter to block views that are different from their own.

Given the complicated political and linguistic circumstance in Hong Kong, it is worth examining how languages are used to claim a political stand, especially when it is expressed implicitly. Language should never be used to separate people from one another. Unfortunately, for Hong Kong people, when you sit in a tea house and start to talk, by choosing a language, you choose a side.