Change in Television Subtitles Sparks Public Anger in Hong Kong

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A woman walks in front of a television screen displaying a broadcast of local channel TVB at a restaurant in Hong Kong, Feb. 25, 2016.
A woman walks in front of a television screen displaying a broadcast of local channel TVB at a restaurant in Hong Kong, Feb. 25, 2016.

A Hong Kong television station has been swamped with complaints after it stopped using the city's lingua franca, Cantonese, on its prime-time news show, opting instead for Mandarin and subtitling it with the simplified Chinese characters used in mainland China.

Hong Kong's media watchdog received more than 13,000 complaints from the public about the changes brought in by free-to-air broadcaster TVB, local media reported.

The network, however, defended its decision on Thursday, calling criticisms by lawmakers "specious" and saying that the overall airtime given to Cantonese programming remains the same.

TVB chief executive Lee Po-on said it was important not to discriminate against people educated across the internal border in mainland China, who only read the simplified form of written Chinese.

Owing to the huge variety in spoken forms of Chinese, many of which are mutually unintelligible, subtitling is widely used in all forms of programming in Chinese-speaking regions of the world.

Lee was responding to criticisms from pan-democratic lawmaker Claudio Mo, who said TVB was starting to sound like a mouthpiece for the ruling Chinese Communist Party, adding that she feared Cantonese could go the way of the Tibetan and Uyghur languages in China.

But he denied the change had been made to please Beijing, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reported.

No need for such change

Leung Kwok-hung, a pan-democratic member of the city's Legislative Council (LegCo), said there was no need for such change to accommodate mainland Chinese in the city.

"They can just learn traditional characters while they're watching TV," Leung said. "Here in Hong Kong, we use traditional characters, and the radio and television programs are all in Cantonese, and they should learn it from us."

"There's no need for simplified characters and Mandarin in a city that speaks Cantonese," Leung told RFA.

TVB's controversial move comes amid a growing public debate over suggestions from education officials that teaching materials in Hong Kong's schools should also include simplified Chinese characters.

A number of Hong Kong residents told RFA's Cantonese Service that they saw no need for a shift to wider use of Mandarin or simplified Chinese, a major theme in the recently popular dystopian Hong Kong movie "10 Years."

"There is no need whatsoever to hardwire the ability to read simplified Chinese into the primary and secondary school curriculums," a mother who gave only her surname Kwun told RFA. "It is ridiculous; it's just change for the sake of change."

A student at a high school in the high-income district of Kowloon Tong said it was unclear where the government was going with the proposals.

"We students don't know who to follow," the student said. "When they recruit teachers, they say that they must be fluent in traditional characters, and not use simplified Chinese."

Ho Hon-kuen, vice-chairman of the concern group Education Convergence, said traditional Chinese characters are a vital part of the city's heritage, and should be treasured.

Many have argued that most people in Hong Kong can already understand simplified Chinese script, a view which Ho appears to share.

"There's no need for this to be formally entered into the curriculum," Ho said.

But Wong Wai-sing, deputy chairman of the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers, said the row over simplified Chinese was a storm in a teacup.

"They're not talking about swapping traditional characters for simplified characters across the board; they are merely suggesting that students should be able to read and write simplified characters," Wong said.

"I think some people are taking this completely out of context so as to heighten tensions between Hong Kong and the mainland."

But he admitted that the Hong Kong government is likely under some political pressure in the wake of the 2014 pro-democracy movement and the Mong Kok riots earlier this month to look as if it is moving to "maintain stability."

Patriotic education program

Pan-democratic lawmaker Helena Wong, however, said some of the government's proposals for changed textbooks were in line with Beijing's calls for more "patriotic education" in Hong Kong's schools, which sparked mass protests in 2009.

"For example, they wanted to delete all the references to freedoms and human rights and justice, and replacement them with concepts like respect for the law and education on the Basic Law," Wong said in a reference to the mini-constitution under which Hong Kong has been governed since the 1997 handover to Chinese rule.

"I think that there are political motivations behind these proposals," Wong said. "This is the road to a politicized curriculum."

Prince Wong of the academic activism group Scholarism that launched a campaign that eventually forced Hong Kong officials to drop Beijing's "patriotic education" program in the city's schools, said the group is against the teaching of simplified Chinese characters.

"We are very strongly opposed to this," she said. "Actually, you usually acquire some knowledge of simplified characters anyway when you are in high school."

"I don't understand why the education department suddenly wants them taught," she said.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen, who represents the education sector in LegCo, said there would be little to be gained from such a move.

"I don't think that this would be of much use [to students] given the sort of linguistic environment we have in Hong Kong," Ip said. "It could even lead to a backlash."

"I can't think of any good practical reasons for aiming to make Mandarin a medium of instruction," he said.

Hong Kong was promised a "high degree of autonomy," including a separate legal system and the protection of its existing freedoms for 50 years after the handover.

But Britain's foreign minister Philip Hammond accused Beijing earlier this month of a "serious breach" of the 1984 handover treaty after Hong Kong bookseller Lee Bo was "involuntarily" taken to mainland China across the internal immigration border.

Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.





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