Late on Tuesday night, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor issued a statement apologizing for “any confusion” caused by her dismissive response earlier in the day to a question asked in English by a reporter from RTHK.

“There is no question of the Government or myself attaching any less importance to the use of English,” she said in the statement. Lam had moved relatively quickly to quell any suggestion that her comments had hurt Hong Kong’s standing as an international city in which English is an official language.

Carrie Lam
Carrie Lam. Photo: LegCo.

Apology accepted, Carrie Lam” was the headline on one commentary. Its author described her remarks as a “momentary lapse” from a hard-working leader with the mother of all headaches to solve in the form of Hong Kong’s land supply problem. I saw a comment on social media that said former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying would never have issued a similar apology.

That should be the end of the story. But I’m afraid it really isn’t. Carrie Lam is not the first government official or politician to show irritation at being asked to respond to a question in English, and she will not be the last.

I wrote a newspaper column in 2000 about the trend after 1997 of public figures either refusing to speak English or speaking it only reluctantly, despite being fluent in the language. These were the very same people who had been more than willing to give interviews in English before the Handover.

At the time, I noted the worst offenders rarely came from the ranks of the traditional pro-Beijing camp and highlighted former Justice Secretary Elsie Leung Oi-sie and then-DAB Chairman Jasper Tsang Yok-shing as being particularly gracious about speaking in English. Instead, the phenomenon was most common among members of the elite who came to prominence under the colonial administration – naturally, that included senior civil servants.

In the early days of the Handover, this behaviour could be interpreted as a desire to ‘do the right thing’ by the new sovereign power and to rid oneself of colonial associations that might hinder a political or business career.

I should point out this reluctance to speak English was and is usually reserved for members of the local English language media, especially those who are ethnic Chinese and bilingual. It rarely applies to foreign journalists from overseas media.

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Carrie Lam said in her statement that on Tuesday she was merely concerned about efficiency. “If reporters ask the same question in different languages (be it Cantonese, Putonghua or English), and the same reply given also in different languages, that would take up time that might otherwise be used for reporters to raise other questions of interest,” she said.

There are two problems with this. Firstly, it has the effect of seeking to drive a wedge between the Chinese language media and English language media. It suggests that asking for quotes in English eats into the time that the (majority) Chinese language reporters get to ask questions.

I know that new and inexperienced bilingual English language reporters are sometimes hesitant to ask English questions precisely because they’re afraid their Chinese language peers may think they are indeed “wasting time.”

When I was a frontline reporter, in the days when a significant number of journalists working in English language media did not speak Cantonese, some Chinese reporters would roll their eyes whenever a “foreign” journalist said: “Can you say that again in English?”

While it’s true that reporters sometimes asked this question because they didn’t understand Chinese, it was also the case that English broadcast news outlets need English soundbites.

carrie lam press conference media freedom
Carrie Lam. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The second problem is that contrary to Lam’s assertion, the two questions on Tuesday were not the same. To illustrate this, I have translated the Chinese question below.

Chinese question:

Mrs Lam, I’d like to ask about the Task Force on Land Supply. Is the plan for land supply [going to be] reclamation from the ocean? Also, the Task Force is currently [conducting a] consultation. As the Chief Executive, for you to already express a stance of support… would this give people the impression that you’re trying to influence the results of the consultation or even overriding the Task Force? Also, will you announce the plan in October’s Policy Address?

Now, compare it with the English question:

Mrs Lam, you said you prefer reclamation and will make an announcement on land supply in October in your Policy Address. That’s before the land supply task force publishes its report. Are you ready to reconsider your options if its outcomes, its conclusions, are different from your preference? If not, does it mean that public views are irrelevant in your decisions?

The questions are on the same topic and partially overlap. Yet they are different. The first question focuses on whether it is appropriate for Lam, in her position as Chief Executive, to express a clear preference for reclamation when the Task Force has not completed its consultation. It asks whether this amounts to trying to influence the results.

The second question asks if she is willing to change her stance if the Task Force comes to different conclusions.  It is a completely sound and reasonable follow-up question. If the Chief Executive had been prepared to properly listen to and answer questions rather than to repeat a line-to-take, she could have given different answers to the Chinese and English questions.

RTHK. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Some commentators have speculated that it wasn’t so much that Carrie Lam didn’t want to repeat herself in English, as that she didn’t want to answer the second question. One of my friends, a senior media veteran, said she was worried about what this could mean for RTHK. She wondered whether Carrie Lam was annoyed that the public broadcaster, funded wholly by the government, was asking her hard questions.

Of course, we cannot know if this is the case. However, we do know this is not the only time Lam has appeared to make dismissive remarks to or about English language media in Hong Kong that were aimed at staff from RTHK’s English service.

On October 31 last year, Lam attended an informal, off-the-record drink and conversation event at the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC). On that occasion, she was asked about the 2022 Gay Games which had just been awarded to Hong Kong, the city’s bid having beaten Washington D.C. and Paris.

According to those who attended the event, Lam could not bring herself to say she welcomed or supported the games. Instead, she engaged in a debate with the questioner about same-sex marriage, saying that the Catholic Church – of which she is a member – did not support it.

The questioner Peter Lewis, who hosts the RTHK Radio Three programme Money Talks, later wrote that Lam added: “that my opinions didn’t matter because I came from the English language service at RTHK which hardly anyone listens to anyway.”

media journalists press freedom
File photo: UN.

Such remarks from Hong Kong’s leader about the English language service of its public broadcaster are astonishing. Remember, they were made at the FCC, at an event attended by foreign journalists and staff from consulates-general in Hong Kong, some of whom had appeared on and listened to Lewis’s show.

They not only disregard the fact that some Hong Kong residents do not understand Cantonese but also belittle the role of Hong Kong’s local English language media.

Together, these incidents present a troubling picture that is at odds with Hong Kong’s claim to be a diverse and international city.

The use of English in Hong Kong is part of our history, heritage and culture and is vital to our place in the world (and in China). Hong Kong positions itself as an international centre for financial and legal services. Our universities want to be centres of international excellence and are trying to recruit more international students. Our government has invested millions in English language education and training. Our highest officials should be leading by example, not mocking members of our English language media for doing their jobs.

As my friend, the senior media veteran, said: “Which other leader in China’s Greater Bay Area is as trilingual and biliterate?… Hong Kong’s impact in China depends on its continued status as an international city, as a window to the outside. Now [Lam is] closing the window. I’m speechless.”

Yuen Chan is a journalist who has worked in print, television and radio as a reporter, anchor and presenter and columnist in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. She previously taught journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where she oversaw the practicum magazine Varsity. Chan is also a founding member of Journalism Educators for Press Freedom. A native of Hong Kong and London, she loves Hong Kong and Canto culture.
Follow Yuen's blog here.