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When language learning turns ‘strategic’ | Jack Kwan

China’s Ministry of Education recently released a report on the status of language usage within the Greater Bay Area (GBA) to which Hong Kong belongs, calling for strengthening the mastery of Putonghua so as to create a harmonious language environment for the 72 million people residing there. Understandably, the move by the Ministry irked some of the 7.5 million local Hongkongers who have spent their entire lives speaking Cantonese and writing traditional Chinese characters.

Based on the findings of surveys conducted in four major GBA cities including Hong Kong, the Ministry report urges the authorities of the former British colony to test their students’ proficiency in Putonghua and knowledge in simplified Chinese characters as part of their academic assessment. To ensure coherence in learning and teaching, the proposed assessment system would count all students at different learning stages, from lower primary all the way up to upper secondary school levels, according to the report compiled by a team of scholars at Guangzhou University.

Notably, team leader Qu Shaobing pointed out in a journal article that adopting a common national language in schools across Hong Kong was indeed a ‘strategic’ concern of the nation for maintaining its identity and unity. He further asserted that the common national language deserved the same level of attention as the national flag, national emblem and national anthem. To put Qu’s remarks into the context of today’s Hong Kong, failure of or resistance to using Putonghua or simplified Chinese characters in classrooms can be construed as an act undermining national unity, thereby breaching the city’s national security law.

As a unique twist, the report also subtly encourages Hong Kong students to keep brushing up their English proficiency alongside Putonghua learning so that they can one day confidently promote China’s greatness — as exemplified by the presumably successful GBA project — to an English-speaking audience. To put it more accurately, such a role is considered ‘strategic’ in nature as the GBA is widely touted as a key strategic component of the Belt and Road Initiative conceived by Xi Jinping a few years ago. Incidentally, Xi recently reminded his senior Communist Party officials about the importance of projecting an image of a “credible, lovable and respectable China” when venturing out to the world to tell the nation’s stories.

With Xi’s reminder in mind, Hong Kong students having a reasonably good command of spoken English may soon get co-opted into China’s propaganda apparatus to showcase to the world the nation’s ‘soft power.’

(Dr Jack Kwan is a MIT-trained consultant based in Boston.)

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