Things Chinese — One Light, One Not

I’ll cover a couple of China-related items in this post, first briefly discussing Mark Zuckerberg’s humorous but admirable efforts to learn to speak Chinese, and then on a more serious aspect, give my view of the Hong Kong protest movement.

So, in case you haven’t heard, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg held a Q&A at China’s Tsinghua University the other day — completely in Mandarin Chinese!  No, this isn’t a joke.  Zuck has been learning to speak Chinese in the last few years, using a private tutor.  The ostensible reason is that he would like to be able to converse with his Chinese-American wife’s grandmother.   I’m sure that Zuck is sincere in that, but since Mrs. Zuck’s family speaks Cantonese, purely family issues might suggest Cantonese as the language he should learn.  And as a Cantonese speaker myself (I speak Mandarin when I need to, but that’s not often and I’m never comfortable in it), I favor that particular brand of Chinese.  But Zuck is undoubtably aware of the salutary effect his linguistic efforts will have on developing business in China, especially the all-important right for Facebook to be freely used within China, and Mandarin is the official language of China.  Mandarin is of course the obvious choice.

So, how did Zuckerberg do in the Q&A?  Well, his accent is truly awful, so much so that I stopped listening after the first 30 seconds or so; it was too painful to watch.  He seems oblivious to tones, a core aspect of any Chinese language.  It made me think, “OMG, do I sound that bad too?” 🙂

But other than creative tonal structure, he wasn’t bad at all.  He was fluent — i.e. his sentences flowed well, without pauses — and I was able to understand him.  His level is well above that of, say, a university student with two years of coursework and no prior background.  If he keeps up with this, I’ve no doubt that he will become quite skilled at the language.  While I disagree with some of his political views, I say 加油, 加油 Zuck!

While Zuck was cavorting linguistically in Beijing — he constantly had a broad smile on his face while wowing the crowd — on the other end of China the pro-democracy protests were continuing in Hong Kong, much longer than many people had expected. What’s the real story there?

To begin with, I hesitated when I typed the phrase pro-democracy above, because this is something the Western press often gets wrong.  As a notable example, the comparisons we’ve been seeing on CNN etc. the last few weeks of the Hong Kong protests to the 1989 student movement in Beijing are way off base; those students in Beijing were just as anti-democratic as Deng Xiao-ping was, elitists who opposed enfranchising the populace with real voting rights.

The motivation in the 1989 protests was primarily economic:   There was ravaging inflation that threatened the civil service sector, at the time the main source of jobs for them after graduation.  They didn’t use the term democracy until they noticed that it was a magic word with the Western press.  I won’t go into the whole mythology that was built up, such as the post facto claim that the protests arose spontaneously upon the death of pro-reform party official Hu Yaobang, but let’s just say that a lot of what you read is incorrect, much of it calculated.  (I’m also not going to get into the issue violence that ensued on June 4; a pox on the houses of all sides.)  If you wish to know more, I recommend J. Unger’s academic book on the demonstrators, or even a careful reading of TIME and Newsweek of that period.

By contrast, my strong impression is that the students currently protesting in Hong Kong are sincere.  I’ll go into some of the reasons, including a quite central one that has rarely been mentioned in the U.S. press.

Before beginning, some disclosure:  I’m highly partial to Hong Kong, have been for 30 years. My wife is from the area and still has family there.  We visit often, and I’ve given talks at HK universities a number of times.  I love the mixture of East and West, and never tire of riding the Star Ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island, with the thrilling view of the city skyline and the mountain backdrop.

As many of you know, the core of HK was granted to Britain “in perpetuity” in the 19th century, as the spoils of war.  Then in 1897 further lands were leased to Britain, with the leases expiring in 1997.  At that latter point, Britain handed all the lands, even the core, over to China.

The Basic Law, a mini-constitution for Hong Kong developed after the 1997 handover, promised that HK would continue to enjoy its freedoms, e.g. freedom of speech and the press, for 50 years.  But the document’s call for “universal suffrage” in elections, like lots of terms in legal documents,  is open to interpretation.  And as has been pointed out often in recent weeks, most HKers had been quite content under British rule without democracy.  (An interesting side issue recently discovered is that even in the 1950s Britain felt pressured by China not to institute democracy, under the threat of China fomenting civil disorder in HK.)  But the difference is that HKers never felt the need for it before now.

Today, a big issue is “immigration,” i.e. migration from inland China to HK.   The complaints are quite similar, unsurprisingly, to what we hear in the U.S. about immigrants:  “They’re taking our jobs!  They’re flooding the housing market!  The schools are becoming overcrowded!”  And indeed, these things aren’t disputed, while they are in the U.S.  (Also missing in HK:  the Race Card, which advocates of expanded immigration policies sometimes play in the U.S.)

Both within China proper and between China and HK, migration is restricted in various ways.  But the popular perception in HK is that the government is allowing too much migration into HK from inland China, creating great resentment.  Even tourists who visit HK from China are disliked,  accused of boorish behavior.

Thus democracy has suddenly become a big issue for what had been one of the most apolitical peoples in the world.  This is why the recent protests have enjoyed so much sympathy from the HK populace (though many are beginning to think enough is enough).  Though again part of the motivation is economic, the aim is to give the people a say in economic issues, rather than restrict power to the elites as the 1989 Beijinger students wanted.

But the “elephant in the room,” perhaps THE central issue, is that most HKers don’t identify with China as the Motherland.  They regard themselves as Chinese culturally, of course, but to many China is rather like a foreign country.  Before 1997, they were OK with rule by a foreign country that largely acted benevolently, but today are uncomfortable under rule by what they see as a less benevolent foreign power.

As is often the case, language plays a key role, as seen for example in what occurred in 1997 with HK elementary and high schools.  With the handover, many schools switched from English to Chinese — but meaning Cantonese, not Mandarin.  The latter is China’s national language,  thus arguably the natural candidate for a new China orientation in Hong Kong.  For reasons of commerce, most HK adults today can speak Mandarin, but the refusal to switch the schools to Mandarin speaks volumes.  And the action, eventually reversed, of the Chinese government a few years ago to suppress use of Cantonese in neighboring Canton (Guangdong) Province must have made many HKers even more leery of China.

Indeed, the official slogan devised by China for Hong Kong’s status after 1997, “50 years, no change,” 五十年不變, flows and rhymes much better in Cantonese than in Mandarin.  Some might argue that the concept itself behind the slogan flows better in HK than in China.

One small, personal observation I’d offer as the pride HKers take in their home involves the many ethnic Chinese foreign students we’ve had in our Computer Science graduate program.  A number of those from HK have returned home after graduation, while I’m not aware of a single example of this among students from China.

I would argue that the Chinese government would benefit from understanding this “Hong Kong pride” in the current crisis.  This leads to the broader question of how those in the Chinese government — and for that matter, many ordinary citizens in China — are viewing the situation.  One irritant to them is that there appear to be U.S. connections to the HK protestors.  By all accounts, these ties are quite weak, and no one really denies that the concerns voiced by protestors are heartfelt.  Yet such ties add one more obstacle to resolution of the crisis.  And besides, American preaching about democracy must sound hollow to people in China, given our perenially deadlocked Congress, and the legal bribery of the members of that body via campaign donations.  Yes, the press in China exaggerates this, and really doesn’t fully understand it to begin with, yet we must admit democracy in the U.S. isn’t working too well these days.

Nevertheless, the Chinese government can easily afford to make concessions regarding the situation in HK.  China has much to be proud of economically — one new subway line in Shanghai every year! — and there has been some political progress as well. Surely there are some face-saving but concrete actions China could take to show the HKers that the latter’s concerns do have some validity.

Letting the Chinese populace access Facebook wouldn’t be such a terrible thing either.

6 thoughts on “Things Chinese — One Light, One Not

  1. A friend swears that the sexist women on earth are Chinese (female) students with British accents. But will mainland Cima squash the goose that lays the golden egg?


    • Your friend may well be right, but he won’t find many like that in HK. Yes, it’s a former British colony, but HK English doesn’t sound like the British variety (nor does American English, of course).


  2. matloff: “[Zuckerberg seemed] oblivious to tones, a core aspect of any Chinese language. […] But other than creative tonal structure, he wasn’t bad at all. He was fluent — i.e. his sentences flowed well, without pauses — and I was able to understand him.”

    So my question is, given that, how “core” is tonality to Mandarin (to which the local Chinese grad students tend to refer as “standard Chinese”) really? Why I ask:

    Awhile back, I tried to learn some Vietnamese, which is slightly more tonal than Mandarin. I did not get far, apparently because losing the tonality (which I did–I find it hard to remember) of words seriously degraded intelligibility. But from what you say above, with Mandarin one can “get by” atonally. (At least, if one is a celebrity billionaire 🙂 Am I understanding you correctly?


    • For individual characters, tones are crucial. The sound ‘tian’ can mean ‘sky’, ‘fill’, ‘field’ etc. On the other hand, context is also crucial in any language, and errors in tones by the speaker can be corrected through “interpolation” by the listener, especially if the listener is already expecting problems.

      Zuckerberg was asked in that Chinese session, “Why do you want to learn Chinese?” He answered that there were three reasons. For “reason” he used the word 原因, which I would translate as more like “cause” rather than “reason,” though some may disagree. But let’s concentrate on his tones. The first character should be tone 2 and the second tone 1, but he said them more like tones 4 and 3 (or 5) approximately. In particular, the second character should be pronounced in a high, flat way, whereas he said it in a low way. It took me about a second to realize that he was saying 原因. If there were two or three such lapses in a sentence, most listeners would lose the meaning entirely.

      I once read a report on a contest for students learning Chinese. One of the instructors was outraged that the winner, while quite fluent, used NO tones. Apparently the judges of the contest considered fluency much more important than tones.

      Tones are by far the most difficult aspect of Chinese to master for a non-Chinese learner. And Mandarin is considered the simplest, with only 4 main tones, plus a 5th neutral one that is for special situations. Cantonese, by contrast, has so many tones that not everyone agrees on how many there are; 9 is a typical number claimed. Moreover, Cantonese has a grammar much richer than Mandarin, making it even more of a challenge to learn. So actually, Zuck could have had an even more challenging task than the one he chose.

      Those students you mention are correct in referring to Mandarin as “standard” Chinese, for the simple reason that it was chosen as the standard. After the 1911 revolution, the government realized that a unifying standard was needed, and chose the Beijing language (I’ve avoided using the term dialect, as the variation is far more than that connotes). It’s called the “national” language in Taiwan and the “common” language in China.

      However, that doesn’t make Mandarin the “real” Chinese. Ancient Chinese actually was closer to what are now the southern versions, especially Cantonese and Fujianese. And there is a legend popular among the Cantonese (might or might not be true) that when the matter of a standard was deliberated on after 1911, Cantonese lost by just one vote. 😦

      By the way, I realized last night after making this post that there are at least three readers of this blog who are non-Chinese speakers of Chinese, and with whom I have spoken Chinese in person.


  3. Very informative Norm, thanks! Let me offer a few comments on American democracy, mainly that I don’t see any major problem with corporate money in politics, quite the opposite – and this in spite of the corporate money all on the wrong side of the H-1B issue. The problem is first that democracy is inherently sloppy, you will have arguments and they won’t all be right. And second that a lot of our social standards of the last 100, 200-plus years have fallen apart. It is the *public* which no longer cares, it is our mainstream press that no longer attempts to do their job, and the overall structure suffers. The problem with American democracy comes mostly from overcentralizing stuff where it can all be broken by lazy and unresponsive bureaucrats and politicians, “regulatory capture” by those regulated. Certainly here in California many of the biggest problems are caused by regulatory capture by unions, not companies, and other non-commercial social groups and interests have destructive political influence. Good government is just as hard as good anything else! I don’t know the answers for Hong Kong, but they have been a shining example to the world for over a hundred years and I hope the mainland Chinese government wants to preserve that whatever it takes, it would seem there is room for win-win solutions.


    • Interesting comments.

      I like the line by the comedian Lily Tomlin: “I tried to be cynical, but I couldn’t keep up.” 🙂 So, while I agree that there is an apathy problem with the American populace regarding government, I would point out that keeping well informed requires a time investment that most people simply don’t have. And sadly, even the press has that problem.

      Nevertheless, when some political issue does grab Americans’ attention, we have the machinery to do something about it. The HKers don’t have that machinery.


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