The government should do more to promote the use of simplified Chinese characters, which are prevalent on the mainland, a study by Hong Kong University’s Social Sciences Research Centre has suggested.

simplified chinese
Photo: CleverClaire, via Flickr.

The research, funded by the Central Policy Unit of the government, found that 69.6 percent of Hongkongers had relatively low levels of proficiency in simplified Chinese. Traditional Chinese characters are most commonly used in the territory, whilst simplified Chinese is used less widely in the workplace than written English.

The paper recommended that “…the government [should] consider framing ‘biliteracy’ to encompass literacy in both traditional and simplified Chinese characters, with the implication that simplified characters are important for national communication but there are currently relatively low levels of proficiency at present…”

Population speaking Putonghua in Hong Kong. Photo: Social Sciences Research Centre, HKU.
Percentages of people who speak Putonghua in Hong Kong. Photo: Social Sciences Research Centre, HKU.

The research went on to say that “traditional characters remain essential to preservation of Hong Kong culture,” with 99.6 percent of Hong Kong respondents stating that they speak Cantonese.

It found that 62.2 per cent of those surveyed can speak English and 68 per cent of respondents are able to speak Putonghua, a rise of 30 per cent for all age groups since 1991. However, the researchers doubted that the increase in Putonghua proficiency was “driven by national identity or economic benefit”.

K. K. Luke, one of the researchers, told local media that he did not think Cantonese would be replaced by Putonghua in the near future, as new immigrants need to learn Cantonese to assimilate into society.

The research also found that 82.7 percent of Hongkongers would disapprove if a chief executive of Hong Kong was able to speak Putonghua, but not Cantonese.

In June, officials from the China Liaison Office attended a speech day at a Hong Kong secondary school that is said to be a keen advocate of the controversial policy of teaching in Putonghua. The move has raised concerns among pro-Cantonese groups over public schools’ language policies.

Last week. the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada announced plans to roll out a course in Cantonese for the first time this Autumn, amid fears over its decline in Hong Kong.

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.