Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Tough Critics

Donald Tsang trying to make himself understood in Putonghua at Peking University

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen faced a pretty tough audience earlier this week.

They didn't rough him up like what happened to him a week ago, but he faced some tough criticism on his Putonghua.

He gave a speech at Peking University on Monday and spoke about the internationalization of the renminbi in Mandarin.

But his serious topic was of no interest to the students -- they just wanted to complain about his Putonghua.

"I have visited Hong Kong many times," one student said, citing two occasions on which he had to speak English to pedestrians to make himself understood. "I think many mainlanders have encountered this problem in Hong Kong. Chief Executive, do you think it is necessary to promote Putonghua in Hong Kong?"

Tsang quickly apologized before the audience of some 1,000 people that included teachers and students.

"One has to go through a process of learning," he explained. "I did not start learning Putonghua until in my 40s. So please excuse me for not speaking well."

However he added, "Our primary and secondary school students are learning [Putonghua] quite well. I believe the pupils can use it well after several years of learning.

"Many of our young civil servants speak Putonghua very fluently. Thank you for your reminder. We will continue to make the efforts," he said.

One of the students who attended the speech, Xi Jing, said it took him a while to adjust to Tsang's Putonghua.

However, Tony Yung Wah-kwok, a Hong Konger studying law at Tsinghua University said the chief executive's Putonghua had improved, but still needed some work.

Criticism of Tsang's Putonghua clearly illustrates the wide gulf between Hong Kong and China. People in Hong Kong have been speaking Cantonese for generations and it's only since the handover have a large number of people been really learning Mandarin.

While some kids may speak it well, many don't speak it often because they don't need to in Hong Kong. It's only when they work in retail, hospitality or tourism do they really need to use Putonghua and even then it's less than perfect.

Why do these mainlanders expect perfect Putonghua just because Hong Kong is a part of China? It's practically a new language for Cantonese people to learn as they have strong southern accents.

Most Hong Kong people have been speaking Mandarin for less than 20 years -- if by 2047, when "one country, two systems" runs out and the majority of Hong Kongers still don't speak perfect Mandarin, then yes, criticize all you want.

In the meantime we'll struggle with our Putonghua and you struggle to understand us. "One country, two systems" is a work in progress, folks.


  1. but what about the northerners learn to speak in cantonese? whatever happened to the protection of cantonese started around the time of the asian games a few months ago in guangzhou?

  2. Actually it was a lack of protection -- the government wanted to mandate people in Guangzhou to speak more Putonghua than Cantonese to appear more welcoming to people coming in for the Asian Games. Instead that idea backfired as people in Guangzhou and Hong Kong protested in the streets.