Is Hong Kong’s Brexit Inevitable or Could Language Be the Key to Unity?

The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the E.U. left many reeling. It is hard to fathom how this lack of unity truly came about or why, ultimately, British citizens made the choice. The good thing to come out of Brexit is that it’s given the rest of the world a glimpse at what could happen if other nations are considering following suit. Hong Kong is one such autonomous territory that has been fighting in recent years to distance itself from the influence of Mainland China. It’s no secret this sentiment has government leaders in Beijing feeling a trifle nervous, hence there have been several attempts at further unifying Hong Kong with the rest of the nation. One such attempt, it seems, has to do with language. It’s an interesting concept indeed: could language unity be the key to country unity and prevent Hong Kong’s own type of Brexit?

Photo via Flickr

One of the main ways in which Hong Kong has differentiated itself from the Mainland has to do primarily with language. While in China, Mandarin is the language of education, government, and business, Hong Kong has proudly touted Cantonese as a major part of its culture and way of life. In fact, while Mandarin is accepted in Hong Kong, it is rarely spoken and does not fall under the umbrella as an official language the way Cantonese and English do. There’s no way to know if this insistence on using Cantonese is meant to be a slight on the Mainland’s control – after all, most Hong Kong locals are migrants or descendants of migrants from Southern China where Cantonese is also widespread. Some would argue that the rise of Cantonese in Hong Kong has been a natural progression due to the majority of migrants hailing from these areas of China.

Photo via Flickr

It’s also important to note that the Chinese government has been struggling to unify the Mainland itself beneath a single language umbrella for decades now. Officials have been promoting spoken Mandarin as the nation’s primary tongue since 1949 and, in some cases, failing. With a nation as large and diverse as China, it’s not surprising that dialects and other forms of spoken Chinese still persist in many parts of the country – especially in the more far-flung provinces. But the language reforms haven’t been without success.  Statistics show that nearly 60% of Chinese can speak Mandarin which is a testament to the government’s persistent push for national education policies which all follow the same outline. However, it does beg the question: if China can’t unite the Mainland with language, how will they unite an autonomous region like Hong Kong?

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The answer may be simpler than most people think: technology. Hong Kong is a highly developed city with a huge tech-savvy population and a reputation as a city of the future. As the Chinese government places pressure on companies to give preference to Mandarin over Cantonese when releasing products in Hong Kong, more and more locals are becoming exposed, and accustomed, to the prevalence of Mandarin. One prime example is when the Japanese company, Nintendo, released a recent version of the Pokémon games in Hong Kong a few months ago and, under pressure from the Mainland, announced that the names of the Pokémon would all be written using Mandarin pronunciation instead of Cantonese. While this seemed like a huge slight to most Hong Kong residents, when Big Brother speaks (or writes) sometimes all you can do is listen.

Photo via Flickr

To many linguist experts, China’s attempt to mold itself into an Asian version of the U.S. – unified by a single spoken and written language – is futile. China’s history and language varies so much from English and other Latin-based tongues that it can hardly be expected to follow the same linguistic journey. And Chinese script, while beautiful and rich in history, is notoriously complex and inflexible. It allows little space for change – especially the kind of rapid rise and fall of language trends that have become a normal part of the internet age. Technology has also made it easier in some cases to move away from the constrictions of Mandarin and instead apply Pinyin (a Romanization of the Chinese language) as an easier, and more flexible way to communicate. Even then, it seems a point of national pride for China that they hold on to the written and spoken language of old. Unfortunately, this may also mean that language is not the key to holding the nation together. Do you think language can unify a nation? Why do you believe China is so reluctant to evolve towards a more global form of written Chinese?  

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