Language, Identity, and Politics in Hong Kong

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The symbol of the yellow umbrella has come to represent the ethos of a movement for democratic political representation—a campaign today known as the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement. The Umbrella Movement—which owes its name to the umbrellas protesters used to protect themselves against tear gas during Hong Kong’s 2014 demonstrations—began in response to the August 2014 decision by China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress disallowing Hong Kong voters to elect their own Chief Executive in 2017. Despite the movement’s failure in securing universal suffrage, the effects of the Umbrella Movement gave rise to increased political activism among Hong Kong’s youth. Several “Umbrella Soldiers” were even elected to the District Council Elections in Hong Kong in 2015 and to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council in 2016. The movement also appears to have impacted attitudes towards language in Hong Kong, and has led to increased acceptance of the local variety of English, known as Hong Kong English (HKE).

The Umbrella Movement partially led to the rise of localism in Hong Kong, which is today linked to calls for independence from People’s Republic of China (PRC) rule. Localism refers to a preference for and protection of a local region or area and is associated with the assertion of a unique Hong Kong identity—of being a “Hong Konger”—in contrast to being “Chinese” or even “Hong Kong Chinese.” A June 2016 survey found that 89 percent of 18-29 year olds identify as a Hong Konger, as compared to 68 percent in 1997. In contrast, the percentage of those self-identifying as “Chinese” has sharply declined,

Language is a means by which individuals express their identity and Hong Kong is no exception. Historically, Hong Kong has been bilingual. The most commonly used language is Cantonese, spoken by 90 percent of the 7 million residents of Hong Kong. English is the second most commonly used language and holds an important function in education, law, finance, and government. English is also the longest serving official language of Hong Kong. In fact, it was the sole official language during the colonial era and through 1974, when Chinese was also made an official language. Hong Kong ultimately retained both English and Chinese as official languages after the British handover. While the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, does not explicitly identify a particular Chinese dialect as official, it is interpreted to mean Cantonese. Mandarin Chinese, the official language of the PRC, became an official language in Hong Kong in 1997 under the trilingual (Mandarin, English, and Cantonese) spoken and bilingual (English and Chinese) written language policy that still exists today.

Cantonese reflects a Hong Kong identity that is a stark juxtaposition to the identities of those living in mainland China. Brian Fong Chi-hang, Associate Professor at the Education University of Hong Kong’s Academy of Hong Kong Studies, notes that “Hong Kong’s identity is always facing a mirror, which is China. All our values are relative to that of China. For instance, we speak Cantonese while they speak [Mandarin].” Although scholars predict that Mandarin will eventually replace English as the language for educational and economic advancement in Hong Kong because of China’s growing economic power, English still ranks higher in prestige and value than does Mandarin. In addition, bilingualism in Cantonese and English epitomizes an East-West mix of Hong Kong’s colonial heritage with an Asian milieu. Some Hong Kongers view this as a crucial way to assert an identity separate from that of mainland China.

An important and yet unanswered question is which English best reflects and defines a local Hong Kong identity. For some English speakers in Hong Kong, British English still carries value as a marker of Hong Kong’s colonial past and westernization. However, American English is increasingly influencing how English is learned and used in Asia—in large part due to the global domination of the American mass media. Additionally, a local variety of English with Cantonese characteristics, Hong Kong English, is also emerging in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong English is often derided by English speakers in Hong Kong as ungrammatical or incorrect. However, among some English speakers, and particularly among young Hong Kongers, HKE is gaining some acceptance as a marker of local identity. As researchers note, “Political and social factors have given HKE a major role in forming Hong Kong cultural identity. From being just a symbol of political dominance, HKE has grown to become one of Hong Kong’s most important cultural icons.”

A multi-year research project tracking shifts in both cultural identification and acceptance of HKE among university students during and following the Umbrella Movement showed a significant increase in identification as a Hong Konger, jumping from 61 percent at the start of the Umbrella Movement to 74 percent one and two years on. Additionally, the acceptance of HKE as a legitimate variety of English increased from 31 percent at the start of the movement to 43 percent in 2016. University students who stated that they spoke HKE were most likely to identify as Hong Kongers, as opposed to Hong Kong Chinese or Chinese.

Joshua Wong, a twenty-year old student activist and one of the leaders of the Umbrella Movement, is now the international face of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement. Eddie Chu Dick Hoi, a newly elected pro-democracy lawmaker on the Legislative Council who famously received the most votes of any candidate in the recent 2016 Legislative Council elections, is another. Both speak HKE in international press interviews. This is in stark contrast to other Hong Kong politicians, many of whom prefer to communicate in Chinese with the press, sometimes due to concerns about their accent or English proficiency, or else to affirm Hong Kong’s identity as a Chinese city. In the cases of Joshua Wong and Eddie Chu, English—particularly Hong Kong English (HKE)—marks a localist Hong Kong identity to the world.

The symbolic value of a local variety of English unique to Hong Kong will likely rise in the future due to fears that Hong Kong’s other local language, Cantonese, may be under threat. Mandarin has already replaced Cantonese as the Chinese language of instruction in 70 percent of primary and 40 percent of secondary schools in Hong Kong. This promotion of Mandarin is part of PRC’s efforts to unify China and thus serves both linguistic and political purposes. Many view this as further evidence of the PRC’s meddling in local Hong Kong affairs. It has been met with resistance in Hong Kong and only added more fuel to the pro-democracy fire. English, as the second language of Hong Kong and the language with the longest history as an official language in Hong Kong, may become the sole linguistic marker of a unique Hong Kong identity.

While British English still holds prestige in Hong Kong, its association with another era of non-independent rule may ultimately weaken its value in Hong Kong. The changing political and linguistic landscape of Hong Kong, however, may increase the value of Hong Kong English as it reflects and embodies Hong Kong’s unique culture. Like the symbol of the yellow umbrella, Hong Kong English may be on the way to being viewed not as a deficient or erroneous variety of English, but as the linguistic symbol of Hong Kong, and ultimately, democratic and independent rule from the PRC.

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Jette G. Hansen Edwards is an associate professor of applied linguistics at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. She writes on language, identity, and politics. She is currently working on a book, The Politics of English in Hong Kong: Attitudes, Identity, and Use (forthcoming 2018).

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