Tue, Jun 25, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Language may help to stop China’s infiltration

By Ho Hsin-han 何信翰

In the demonstrations against the Hong Kong government’s proposed amendments to its extradition law — the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance and the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance — there is something that Taiwanese should pay special attention to: the language that the protesters are using.

As live footage of the demonstrations was broadcast, it became clear that almost all of the protesters were speaking Cantonese rather than Mandarin, and that Cantonese was also used on signs and banners, despite schools being under heavy pressure to promote Mandarin — or “putonghua” (普通話), “the common language,” as it is called China — through a program pushing for “the use of putonghua as the medium of instruction for teaching the Chinese language.”

As many of the riot police sent to suppress the protesters did not appear to understand Cantonese, many in Hong Kong are speculating that they were not actually Hong Kong law enforcement officers, but almost certainly had been sent from the mainland.

This raises the question of what would happen if similar events were to take place in Taiwan. Would Taiwanese be able to tell where police officers came from by the languages they spoke or were unable to speak?

Hong Kongers were suspicious of the officers because they did not understand Cantonese, but would Taiwanese be able to surmise whether an officer were from Taiwan because they could not speak Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese), Hakka, or one of the indigenous languages? Or would they be unable to make such a distinction simply because widespread competency in our mother tongues has been lost?

A similar situation can be found in connection to the issue of false news reports. Internationally, there is at least one other country with a problem that is similar to Taiwan’s: Ukraine.

It is common for people in the eastern parts of Ukraine to speak Russian, which makes it easier for Moscow to manipulate what Ukrainians think by leveraging the power of media, including through false news reports. By doing so, Russia can stir up social turmoil that results in losses at every level for Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government had to create countermeasures by pushing through strict language laws in late April. The new legislation imposes restrictions on the use of Russian in the public sphere and more aggressive measures to promote the use of Ukrainian.

If Taiwanese media were to use Hoklo, Hakka and the indigenous languages, other countries that wanted to mobilize an Internet army to infiltrate Taiwan would perhaps not be able to recruit many people fluent in these languages, which would minimize their potential impact.

Taiwan’s various mother tongues could serve as an effective defensive weapon, which would protect not only the many different ethnic groups, but also the nation from being infiltrated.

Ho Hsin-han is an associate professor at National Taichung University of Education’s Taiwanese languages and literature department.

Translated by Chang Ho-ming

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