Student protesters against compulsory Mandarin punished

Two students at Hong Kong Baptist University were suspended last week after campus protests over compulsory Mandarin language being required for students to graduate. The protests took on a political tone as Mandarin is the language of mainland China, while Hong Kong’s official languages are Cantonese and English. Hong Kong Baptist University, along with other main public universities in Hong Kong, teaches in English.

The university student union leader, Lau Tse-kei, and another student, Andrew Chan, convener of a Cantonese language support group at the university known as Societas Linguistica Hongkongensis, were told they would be temporarily suspended pending the completion of disciplinary hearings against the two which could last several weeks, after the eight-hour campus altercation between staff and students on 17 January.

The university’s president, Roland Chin, was tearful when he announced the temporary suspensions on 24 January. He said “initial investigations” had shown that the students’ conduct during the protests had resulted in “teachers feeling threatened and insulted, affecting their work”, and such behaviour – which included students shouting profanities at staff – went against the university’s code of conduct.

Dozens of students were protesting against a Mandarin language exam, which students sat for the first time in November 2017. Undergraduates must pass the language exam before they are allowed to graduate if they have not taken other Mandarin language courses at the university. According to the university’s results, 70% of students who took this compulsory exam failed.

Last year a student poll on the Mandarin proficiency requirement found that almost 90% of 1,544 students supported withdrawing the requirement. During the protests, students said there was no transparency in the way the test was marked.

Many students say Mandarin proficiency is important for employment opportunities, but say it should not be compulsory. “We have no negative feelings towards Mandarin,” Lau said on Tuesday but questioned why it should be a compulsory course.


With speculation emerging in Hong Kong media that mainland officials had sought to influence university heads, officials at Hong Kong Baptist University insisted politics – in particular relations between Beijing official representatives and Hong Kong – had played no role in the decision to temporarily suspend the two students.

But students allege the university’s ‘over-reaction’ resulted from pro-Beijing pressure at a time when pro-Beijing groups are combating the ‘localism’ movement in Hong Kong, which campaigns against the ‘mainlandisation’ of the city, a British colony until its hand-over to China in 1997.

The Global Times, the mainland newspaper linked to the official Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, claimed Chan had planned pro-Hong Kong independence actions. Beijing has sought to crack down on campus-based activities which promote the view that Hong Kong should be independent from China.

But Chan denied joining any pro-independence groups or promoting such activities. He founded Societas Linguistica Hongkongensis in 2013 to promote the use of Cantonese against the increasing prevalence of Mandarin, he says, and insists he is not a ‘localist’.

Support from other universities

Student unions at the University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and other universities in Hong Kong issued a joint statement condemning Hong Kong Baptist University for punishing Chan and Lau before the disciplinary proceedings were completed.

Lau has apologised for his actions. However, as campus tensions rose after the proposed suspension – the Baptist University students’ union said it planned protests and marches over the students’ suspension – university officials in a meeting with students on 23 January said they would “consider all possibilities” to review the Mandarin requirement.

“Students’ views are very important – but we need also to consider teachers’ views as well as the current expectations of the community,” said Albert Chau, the university’s vice-president for teaching and learning, during the meeting with students.

The university has said the language requirements are in line with the city’s education policy to ensure students are proficient in written English and Chinese, and spoken Cantonese, English and Mandarin.

Additional fall-out

There was additional fall-out from the protests which was reported by Global Times and other mainland websites.

Chan, a student of Chinese traditional medicine, was days into a year-long internship at the Guangdong Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, but was forced to return to Hong Kong and cancel the internship after receiving threatening online messages.

Chan said the Baptist University’s leadership had been more interested in punishing him than in ensuring his safety, describing the death threats he received online as extremely terrifying.