Bobby Yip / Reuters Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying takes oath in front of Chinese President Hu Jintao during the inauguration of the new government in Hong Kong, July 1, 2012.

Tongue-Tied in Hong Kong

The Fight for Two Systems and Two Languages

In 2012, C. Y. Leung was sworn into office as chief executive of Hong Kong after a controversial campaign. Because of Hong Kong’s unique “one country, two systems” arrangement with mainland China, he was elected to the territory’s highest office not by the direct vote of the citizens of Hong Kong but by an election committee of 1,200 members, widely viewed as a political cabal with economic and political ties to Beijing. Leung’s online critics nicknamed him 689, a reference to the actual number of votes that he received from the group of Beijing insiders out of the city’s 3.5 million registered voters.

Leung’s inaugural speech, delivered in Mandarin—the official language of mainland China—only further alarmed the city. It was the first time since Hong Kong’s 1997 handover from British control that a chief executive did not give his address in Cantonese, the dominant language in the city he was elected to represent. This entrenched a growing belief in Hong Kong that he was nothing more than a puppet of the Communist Party.

The symbolism of this moment was not lost upon Hong Kong’s citizens, particularly those who took to the streets two years later in what became known as the Umbrella Revolution. The movement championed greater autonomy from mainland China, not only politically but also culturally, with language at the heart of the fight. Activists emphasized the primacy of the Cantonese language, which nearly 90 percent of the city’s inhabitants speak. During the Umbrella Revolution, the streets of Mong Kok buzzed constantly with the popular 1990s Canto-pop song “Beyond,” which was blared from stereos on repeat. Cantonese slang covered the posters that lined the walls of the pedestrian walkways in Admiralty Square. Activists used the term jyuze (雨遮), the Cantonese word for “umbrella,” not the Mandarin yusan (雨伞), for the name of their revolution.

Pride in the Cantonese language and palpable concern that it is under threat still guides Hong Kong politics and culture. The 2015 dystopian indie film Ten Years, which was a hit among the city’s disgruntled youth, expressed all the typical anxieties about state surveillance and violence. It featured a Hong Kong only a decade in the future that is controlled by the mainland: there are staged assassinations to terrify Hong Kong residents into obedience and children trained to serve as thought-control watchdogs. And yet what troubled Hong Kong citizens most was a law in the movie that punished city residents for speaking anything other than Mandarin. Beijing’s cultural hegemony, not merely its capacity for surveillance and violence, weighs heavily upon Hong Kong.

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