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Identity crisis: to address the cause of Hong Kong's unrest, look to Quebec

Inkstone logo Inkstone 18/10/2019
a group of people standing in a room © SCMP/Jonathan Wong

Given the continuing protests, it may seem untimely to discuss Hong Kong's identity issue. However, the protests are increasingly featuring an identity-related dimension, with the use of "Kongish," the chanting of slogans and the singing of the Cantonese song Glory to Hong Kong.

Cantonese is a key piece of Hongkongers' identities. Within Hong Kong's diverse communities, Cantonese is the prominent Chinese dialect spoken by 88% of the residents and written in traditional Chinese characters. On the mainland, Mandarin is the official dialect, written in simplified Chinese characters.

Although the number of Cantonese speakers has only declined from 90% in 2011, the future of the dialect is uncertain since many Hong Kong schools are now teaching the Chinese language in Mandarin, instead of Cantonese.

This is understandable in the context of Hong Kong's increasing economic connections with the mainland.

Moreover, Cantonese is losing ground. Long gone is the golden era of Cantonese pop music, television dramas and movies, which once commanded huge followings across Asia.

In recent years, many home-grown talents who made it big have left Hong Kong and Cantonese behind for greener pastures up north.

Even when content is produced in Hong Kong, it is usually a cross-border collaboration that has diluted its Cantonese flavor to cater to a wider audience.

As linguist Robert Bauer has observed, Cantonese is "one highly visible symbol of all the things that make Hong Kong special and unique in relation to the mainland - and there are many people who hate that and intend to do something about it."

Such was the controversy in 2014 when an article posted on the Education Bureau's website claimed that "Cantonese is not an official language."

Indeed, Article 9 of the Basic Law only states that Chinese and English are Hong Kong's official languages.

This has given rise to concerns that Cantonese may soon suffer the same fate as Shanghainese, the dialect that was once widely spoken in Shanghai but is now endangered by the proliferation of Mandarin.

Concerns about linguistic assimilation are not unique to Hong Kong.

Across the border in Guangzhou, large-scale protests were mounted in 2010 after the local government proposed that television channels make the switch from Cantonese to Mandarin.

Preserving a region's unique identity while maintaining national harmony may require a proactive approach.

Consider Canada's relationship with Québec. In a situation similar to Hong Kong's, Québec is different from the rest of the country and has a different language, legal system and institutions.

In 1977, Québec passed the Charter of the French Language to protect the local culture and language on an English-speaking continent.

Decades on, the law has been hailed as a watershed moment for French speakers and their place in society. Former Québec premiere Pauline Marois has said the legislation "perfectly reached its goal of integrating, welcoming and educating young kids of immigrants."

This might seem to beg the question of whether order could be restored in Hong Kong by offering legal protection for Cantonese and traditional Chinese characters.

Not so fast.

The linguistic policy of Québec is often perceived to be arrogance by the rest of Canada.

It has prompted criticism from English-speaking rights groups and led to a mass exodus of anglophones, who were made to feel unwelcome in their own province. As a result of the legislation, companies have moved major operations to English-speaking Toronto.

Hong Kong should not pass a similar law without careful debate, to avoid causing an exodus of Mandarin speakers.

Businesses might just relocate to nearby Shenzhen, if they haven't already, since protesters started targeting allegedly pro-China stores.

The Hong Kong identity crisis involves more than language; it also has an economic element to it.

Government data on pay is stark. The median monthly income of Hongkongers was $2,140 in 2017, with 14% earning over $5,100.

By comparison, more than 30% of mainland professionals in Hong Kong earn monthly salaries of over $2,140.

Around 21,000 of these professionals could be offered permanent residency this year, and exemption from a 15% duty on home purchases.

Unfortunately, this is the kind of trend that creates the perception that high earners from the mainland are partially responsible for worsening Hong Kong's housing crisis and widening the wealth gap.

And these differences are driving tensions between the mainland and Hong Kong.

A mentality is taking hold among some protesters, which has been summed up as laam caau, Cantonese slang for "burning together."

This is cause for concern, especially in view of a Chinese University survey in July which found that 40% of Hongkongers had a low sense of belonging to China.

While pushing a hasty law is by no means a wise solution to Hong Kong's complex problems in this sensitive climate, it is evident from the protests that the identity issue must not be swept under the carpet.

Further neglect of the situation might heighten the tensions and deepen the divide.

And, if it does come to that, will the identity issue remain taboo or will the protection of Hong Kong's identity be recognized as the heart of the matter?

Franklin Koo is an accredited mediator, lawyer and author of Power to the People: Extending the Jury to the Hong Kong District Court.

This story originally appeared on Inkstone, a daily multimedia digest of China-focused news and features. Like what you see? Sign up for our newsletter, download our app, or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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