Huge waves of complaints reaching 13 thousands have made its way to the city’s broadcasting monopoly since the evening of 22nd February. TVB’s J5 channel invigorated fierce criticisms from the public by adopting simplified Chinese subtitles as the only subtitles option available during its news report at eight thirty. The screen caption has then been spread out via social media, flaring up a new round of debate on the use of simplified Chinese in Hong Kong. In an age when any opinion could be conveniently labelled as a fruit of politicisation by adding a pinch of ‘conspiracy’, ‘suspicious motive’ or ‘foreign influence’, the Education Bureau and mainland mouthpiece has unsurprisingly attacked the protestors as ‘discriminating against the mainland Chinese minority’ and denouncing them as distorting and exaggerating the facts of this incident.
Before moving to the muddled puddle of the Traditional vs Simplified Chinese debate, allow me to get ‘practical’ as the CEO of TVB seems to be advocating. What I don’t seem to understand is the simple question of logic and common practice on television broadcasting. Given that almost 100% of native mandarin speakers read and use simplified Chinese, isn’t providing English or traditional Chinese subtitles a more reasonable option? Using subtitles of the language that is already being spoken on the programme just doesn’t make much sense to me, just as I would certainly have filed a complaint if TVB had broadcasted Fullmetal Alchemist in its original language with Japanese subtitles as the only option. The response coming from TVB has just made the company policy sound even more ridiculous as it claimed that the simplified Chinese subtitles are there because Hong Kong is an international city, TVB should therefore tailor to a more diverse audience. Wait I am confused, is Simplified Chinese the international language at the moment or am I living in a different era? Because the last time I checked, English is still considered the ‘international’ language and LSE still regards itself as a university with an international student body while teaching in English and English only.
The subtitles incident triggered the broader and more sensitive topic on the slow integration of simplified Chinese and mandarin in the Hong Kong education system. Regardless of the fact that the nature of this debate is classified as an educational one, it is impossible to ignore the inherent political controversy embedded in the society’s resistance towards this subtle change. To understand why even language is susceptible to politicisation, one needs to familiarise himself with the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The linguistic relativity principle suggested by the two academics establishes the argument that language encodes identity, a language’s function extends beyond the instrumental sphere and can be regarded as an embodiment of culture and cognitive inheritance. The elimination of a language by means of banning its usage is a manifestation of cultural and political dominance, this is not a novel concept and was once a common practice on territories occupied by both Nazi Germany and the imperialist Japanese during the Second World War.
At this point you might be putting up a strict face and calling my words as groundless exaggerations, thank you for your reminder and I will steer my arguments towards the practicality of promoting the use of simplified Chinese in schools. Almost all of us have experienced the struggle of cramming in as much words as possible in a timed Chinese writing exam, it was pragmatic for us to learn some simplified Chinese characters for examination purposes and this is likely to be our first encounter with writing simplified Chinese. Have we done that because the Education Bureau has told us to do so? No. At a certain age, we have a conscious choice over whether or not we should learn simplified Chinese yet the current trend of Chinese education is to deprive younger generations of that choice. With policies such as giving additional grants to schools practising ‘Chinese taught in Mandarin’ and the recent consultation paper on incorporating simplified Chinese into the subject curriculum, do we truly believe the government is aspiring to conserve the linguistic heritage of our city? With the citizen’s average English proficiency facing an embarrassing decline compared to other Asian cities, has the EDB been advocating on policies improving students’ English standard with the same determination and tenacity as manifested in its recent attempts to promote simplified Chinese? The irony becomes stark when we see phrases such as ‘aims to strengthen overseas communication’ in the EDB’s consultation paper. Overseas communication? More like over-the-Shenzhen-river communication.
As a side note also relating to languages and media in general, President Xi has recently paid visits to the three communication giants in mainland China, namely the CCTV, Xinhua News Agency and People’s Daily. By the end of his visit in CCTV, he announced that the media must have its surname as the ‘Party’, an illustrative way of demanding absolute loyalty from the mainstream media. Eager to win a pet on the head, CCTV had the following slogan on its screen during Xi’s visit: 央視姓黨 絕對忠誠 請您檢閱. When a news agency is so earnestly degrading itself to a Ministry of Propaganda, the so-called journalists are also giving up their title and embarking on the road of creative writing. I may as well share a recent piece of work from an editor in Xinhua News Agency. For the ultimate reading experience, the following poem is in simplified Chinese.
Thank you Xinhua for saving my diet, my appetite for midnight snacks has completely vanished after admiring such an impressive work of yours. Maybe after several decades of transforming the Chinese curriculum and adopting simplified Chinese, Hong Kong will be so blessed by the Party to have gifted ‘journalists’ like this.