A student protest over a school policy is turning into another powder keg of cross-border animosity.
Two students of the Hong Kong Baptist University were suspended after they participated in a protest at the school’s language center over a compulsory Putonghua test.
One of the students, Andrew Chan Lok-hang, a Chinese medicine intern at a mainland hospital, was forced to return home after hospital staff received abusive messages and death threats directed at him for his participation in the protest. The other student, Lau Tse-kei, is the chairman of the HKBU student union. He was assailed for using foul language while confronting staff of the language center during the protest.
The students were opposing a Putonghua proficiency examination that they had to pass in order to be exempted from a mandatory course on the language. Recent test results showed that 70 percent of those who took the exams failed. They complained that the exams were too hard and the evaluation was too strict and lacking in transparency.
They said the study of Mandarin should be optional, noting that the students’ proficiency in Cantonese and English should be sufficient.
But Roland Chin, the university president and vice-chancellor, stressed that their suspension was not because they opposed the mandatory language test but because their behavior was unacceptable.
“Any such action, behavior on campus threatening teachers or threatening anyone is unacceptable. That’s why we have to make that hard decision,” Chin was quoted as saying at a press conference.
It is quite obvious, however, that his decision to suspend the students was prompted by enormous pressure from the pro-Beijing camp — politicians, educators, columnists and netizens — who looked at the protest as part of a localist campaign to reject anything that has to do with mainland China.
One fuming columnist even assailed the HKBU student protesters for wasting taxpayers’ money and urged them to return the subsidies they had received from the government for their education.
Their anger at the students was hard to understand. They were not advocating Hong Kong independence. They were simply asking the university to remove the language test, which has nothing to do with the studies they are pursuing.
Many of the students who participated in the protest realize the advantage of being proficient in Putonghua, especially if they are planning to practice their profession across the border. But it is a language that they can learn on their own, instead of becoming an additional burden to their studies.
The students used foul language during the protest? Is that enough reason to deprive them of their education?
On the other hand, did the university officials express their concern when the students who participated in the protest received verbal abuse and death threats from mainlanders?
Some critics are even asserting that the students’ opposition to the Putonghua requirement was a threat to the national security. Isn’t that ludicrous?
In fact, local students are being treated unfairly over this language issue. If they must take Putonghua tests or courses as a requirement for graduation, shouldn’t mainland students also be made to attend Cantonese classes or take Cantonese proficiency exams?
The only reason we can think of for this highly discriminatory language policy in the university is Beijing’s intention to turn Hong Kong into a completely integrated Chinese territory without its own cultural roots.
Proficiency in Putonghua is certainly an asset for any Hong Kong student, but it should not be made a requirement for graduation. If there is to be such a requirement, it should apply not only to local students but also to non-Hong Kong students.
Originally published at www.ejinsight.com on January 25, 2018.