On January 24, Ronald Chin, president of the Hong Kong Baptist University, announced the suspension of two BU students who, on January 17, went with other students to the Language Centre to protest against the unfairness of the University’s requirement that students to pass a Putonghua exam as a graduation prerequisite.

Chin alleged that the two students had threatened teachers at the centre physically and verbally but – as can be seen from the video record – only one student uttered a Cantonese word meaning “dick”, and no students used any violence.

Cantonese, the mother tongue of most Hongkongers and one of the de facto official oral languages of Hong Kong (the other one being English), is a 3,000-year-old elegant language, still spoken by 100 million people. Putonghua, the official language of China, has a history of at the most 300-400 years.

Many Hongkongers think that it is discriminatory to require Hong Kong college students to pass a Putonghua exam as a prerequisite to graduate, while Mainland students studying in Hong Kong are not required to take any course or exam in Cantonese. Quite a few Hong Kong netizens regard this policy as promotion of Chinese colonisation, in view of the fact that Tibetans and Uygurs are forbidden to speak or write their mother language at schools in China.

Students whose mother tongue is not Chinese or who have taken Chinese exams in China are exempted from the university’s language requirement. Last year, the school put forth a Putonghua exemption exam for local students too. But the pass rate was only 30 percent. The students attribute this to the assessment standard being unclear.

On January 17, a few students, including Lau Chi-kei, chair of the HKBU Student Union, and Chan Lok-hang, a final year Chinese medicine student, went to the Language Centre of the Baptist University to ask the staff to explain how they assessed the students’ Putonghua and to produce the rubrics concerned. But staff refused to respond.

And despite the students’ repeated requests, more senior staff at the university refused to talk to the students. The situation dragged on for eight hours. Then, Lau Chi-kei uttered the Cantonese word, lan2卵, which means dick – literally, in the following sentence: “You said you wouldn’t the dick respond – wouldn’t respond to the students’ demands.”

But as can be seen from the video, none of the students present at the scene uttered any other swearwords. Nor did they use any physical violence. They did not even make any threatening gestures, although one expatriate teacher at the scene claimed that they were being threatened by the students. Many netizens commented that – when encountering a gross injustice – it is only a normal human reaction to utter a swear word or two.

Standoff between students and university staff. Photo: BUSU, via Facebook.

On January 24, Lau Chi-kei and Chan Lok-hang publicly apologised for their behaviour at the protest. Unexpectedly, on the afternoon of the same day, the president of Baptist University announced temporary suspensions for both students for having breached the code of conduct by orally insulting and physically threatening teaching staff of the university.

Subsequently, at a press conference held on the same day, Lau and Chan stressed that – on January 17 – they only aimed at reforming the university administration and did not use any violence. They condemned the HKBU president for confounding right and wrong, for paying no heed to students’ studies and safety.

It turns out that in recent days, when Chan Lok-hang was studying as an HKBU intern in Canton, he received more than 100 death threats from China netizens. He tried to seek help from the university via a district councillor, Clarisse Yeung. But the president of the school did not any offer help until Lau fled back to Hong Kong on the morning of January 24. Plus, the president has never sent any other word of comfort or reassurance to Chan.

Lau and Chan said: “We are now forced to take a path of no return; from now on, we will struggle for students’ rights and welfare without care!”

The languages that should be grasped as one of the requirements of graduation are written Chinese and English. Oral languages do not need to be assessed. Even if students’ oral speech is to be assessed, it should only be Cantonese and English. For Cantonese is the mother tongue of most Hongkongers and university students.

According to the Basic Law, the official languages of Hong Kong are Chinese and English, but it is not specified whether “Chinese” means Cantonese or Putonghua as far as oral speech is concerned. Nonetheless, for 170 years, Cantonese and English have been the de facto official spoken languages of Hong Kong. Since 1842, in all official situations in Hong Kong, including courts, government departments, Executive and Legislative Councils, schools, mass media, etc., either Cantonese or English are spoken.

Photo: CleverClaire, via Flickr.

Various student bodies, including the HKBU Student Union, Student Christian Movement of Hong Kong, and Hong Kong Federation of Students, protested in support of the two suspended students and demanded the University cancel the Putonghua exam or test.

Hong Kong Cantonese is a tripartite compound language comprising the Pak Yuet languages, classical Chinese, and loan words from the West. Pak Yuet is a group of ancient minorities living in Southern China, closely related to Vietnamese and Thai. Still spoken by more than 100 million people all over the world, Cantonese can be traced back to the Spring and Autumn Period around 3,000 years ago.

It is a reservoir of elegant and orthodox Chinese culture and language. Instead of suppressing the Cantonese language in Hong Kong, the British colonial government of Hong Kong used to preserve and promote it.

File photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP.

Contrastingly, Putonghua is an artificial language imposed by the Chinese Communist Party on Mainland Chinese. Due to the mandatory state policy of using Putonghua as the teaching medium at school, Cantonese on the Chinese Mainland has been deteriorating.

In recent years, the Education Bureau of the Hong Kong government, which is largely appointed by China, has been using financial subsidies to lure schools in Hong Kong into teaching the Chinese subject in Putonghua instead of Cantonese. Hong Kong should do more to preserve this time-honoured and elegant language.


Chapman Chen

Dr. Chapman Chen has a Ph.D. in Sinology an is the founder of Dr. Cantonese. He is a translator, a linguist, and a green, vegan activist. Chen has 30 years of professional experience in interpreting and translation, taught at universities for a decade.