No one likes exams, but some hate them more than most.
A foul-mouthed protest is highlighting Hong Kong’s linguistic divide
An unpopular mandatory Mandarin test at a public university has drawn attention to one of the Hong Kong’s most divisive issues: language.
Hong Kong's publicly funded Baptist University has come under fire in an ongoing debate surrounding its Mandarin language requirement for graduation.
In Hong Kong, Cantonese is commonly spoken, not Mandarin.
A January protest over the issue turned into an eight-hour stand-off between student protesters and administrators.
The protests went viral on social media after video circulated showing the student union leader cursing during a confrontation with lecturers.
On Monday, Baptist University's disciplinary panel ruled that two of the members involved in the protest would be suspended from study: one for a semester, and another for eight days.
It’s relit controversy around the protest. Nine student unions in Hong Kong criticized the university for “suppressing freedom.”
Why were the students upset?
Baptist University, which teaches primarily in English, requires its students to pass a Mandarin module to graduate. This is an unpopular requirement which students have objected to for years.
Mainland Chinese and non-Chinese-speaking students are exempt.
Last year, the university introduced a language proficiency test which, if passed, would exempt students from having to enroll in classes.
However, students were angered in January after results showed that 70 percent of those who took the test had failed.
Students felt the test did not gauge basic Mandarin proficiency, as the school had promised, saying it went beyond essential communication skills.
The student union and 22 other student groups wrote an open letter to the university demanding transparency in the administering and grading of the exams, and a timeline to cancel the “evil” Mandarin requirement.
What did the students do?
Student activists occupied the university’s language center on January 17, demanding transparency and changes to the proficiency test. The protest turned into an eight-hour standoff.
Lau Tsz-kei, then-president of the student union, and around 30 other students confronted staff members at the center, which administers the tests.
But there was a backlash against the students’ aggression during the protest – broadcast live on the student union’s Facebook page – including Lau’s use of profanity while addressing teachers. Lau later called it a “slip of tongue.”
How did the university respond?
A week after the standoff, the college suspended several of the students involved, before lifting the suspensions a week later following widespread criticism.
But on Monday, it suspended two students – former student union president Lau Tsz-kei and Chinese medicine student Andrew Chan – for a semester and eight days, respectively.
Baptist University has set up a working group to review the Mandarin graduation requirement.
The student union called the move a delaying tactic.
Lau said the university needed to consult students on these issues, saying: “We have no negative feelings towards Mandarin, but why must the school make it compulsory for us to study it?”
Why is Mandarin so controversial?
Hong Kong’s official languages are English and Chinese, but most people in the city speak the southern Chinese variant called Cantonese, not the Mandarin spoken widely in mainland China. Cantonese and Mandarin are not mutually intelligible.
Hong Kong, which operates semi-autonomously from mainland China, has seen anti-mainland feelings grow as the central government extends its involvement in the city.
Many in Hong Kong, especially young people, fear the emphasis on Mandarin in local schools and the influx of mainland Chinese immigrants will chip away at the city’s autonomy and culture.
This rising sentiment does not sit well with those in mainland China. Student protester Andrew Chan had to cut short his internship at a mainland hospital after receiving threatening phone calls.