Hong Kong Apostasy
The Cantonese expression 講耶穌 gong2 je4 sou1, literally ‘to give a sermon about Jesus’, or ‘to be preachy’, generally means to prattle, or to speak in a boring and vacuous fashion. When I worked for The Seventies Monthly in Hong Kong in the late 1970s, colleagues would regularly mock Mainland propaganda as being nothing more than 講耶穌 gong2 je4 sou1, boring harangues.
In the decades since the People’s Republic subsumed the former British colony, its people have been increasingly exposed to Communist officialese, be it in the form of government speeches, media pronouncements or just everyday palaver. On the Mainland, blathering partyspeak has long been derided for being 假大空 jiǎ dà kōng, ‘mendacious, hyperbolic and fatuous’. Nonetheless, Communist logorrhea also disguises serious, often deadly, intent. (See ‘Mendacious, Hyperbolic & Fatuous — an ill wind from People’s Daily‘, China Heritage, 10 July 2018.)
Along with all the ‘Jesus-talk’ 講耶穌, Hongkongers also have to deal with the local form of official speech 官話 guān huà that is over-the-top 大話 dà huà and patently disingenuous 廢話 fèi huà. Following the imposition of the National Security Law on 30 June 2020, overnight everyone was expected simply to 聽話 tīng huà, that is obey or submit. For them to still expect to hear clarifying discourse 亮堂話 liàngtang huà, let alone to demand that local politicians who serve at the pleasure of Beijing to ‘speak like human beings’ — 講人話 gong2 yan4 wa6/ jiǎng rén huà — was but to invite censure.
On 27 September 2020, the staff union at Radio TV Hong Kong (RTHK) reported that Nabela Qoser (利君雅, 1986-), host of ‘This Week’ 視點31 and a journalist celebrated for her uncompromising questioning of government bureaucrats and pro-government figures during the Anti-Extradition Bill Protest Movement of 2019-2020, found herself under investigation, again:
Qoser’s confrontational approach towards Chief Executive Carrie Lam and other officials at press conferences during the months of anti-government protests was praised by many, but denounced as aggressive and biased by others.
“Where were you all last night?,” she had asked Lam, for example, the day after the Yuen Long gang attack on July 21 which put dozens of people in hospital.
Faced with Lam’s obfuscations regarding the brutal mayhem at Yuen Long on 21 July 2019, Qoser had called on the Chief Executive and her fellow bureaucrats to ‘speak like a human being’ 講人話 as opposed to repeating rote talking points or simply ignoring the journalist’s questions. Qoser’s outspokenness on that and other occasions led her to be hailed as one of the city’s ‘reporters with a conscience’ 良心記者. For those in the pro-Beijing camp, however, such temerity was an affront and Qoser immediately found herself subject to a barrage of online attacks. The trolls not only denigrated her journalism, but they attempted to shame her on the basis of her gender and her ethnicity (Qoser is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants to the city).
The investigation of Qoser’s professional work during July-November 2019, long since concluded, was now reopened and she was also informed that her three-year probation period as a civil servant was to be extended by another 120 days. The RTHK union protested against what they described as ‘unreasonable suppression’ and there was strong suspicion that the punitive actions were being carried out at the behest of the government. (See ‘RTHK reopens probe into reporter Nabela Qoser’, RTHK, 27 September 2020; and, John Chan, ‘Beijing Tightens Control Over Hong Kong Broadcast Media’, China Digital Times, 28 September 2020.)
The manipulation, persecution and silencing of journalists by means both covert and overt has been a feature of Communist Party media policy since the 1940s. The roll call of the fallen is long and China Heritage has featured some of their names , including Chu Anping 儲安平, Xu Zhucheng 徐鑄成, Liu Binyan 劉賓雁, Dai Qing 戴晴, as well as contemporary figures like the citizen-journalist Chen Qiushi 陳秋實. In ‘Hong Kong — The Best China’, we have featured in particular the essays of Lee Yee 李怡, a journalist, editor and political commentator, who has been a voice of clarion reason in that city for nearly half a century.
Here we celebrate the work of Nabela Qoser with a skit from Headliner News 頭條新聞, the now defunct weekly review of current affairs produced by RTHK. The title of Episode 18 of Headliner broadcast on 26 July 2019 was: 講人話 ‘Speak like a Human Being’.
The Headliner skit is followed by a comment on the significance of 講人話 jiǎng rén huà in 2012, during the months prior to the rise of Xi Jinping, by the intellectual historian Gloria Davies. We conclude this chapter of ‘Hong Kong Apostasy’ with the protest song ‘Speechless’《虛作無聲》.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
6 October 2020
On 3 May 2021, it was reported that RTHK would not renew Nabel Qoser’s contract beyond the end of the month.
- 記者利君雅一句「講人話」被港台無理延長試用期120日， 多位藍絲無限上綱。30 September 2020
- Press Conference, ‘Questioning from Nabela Qoser’, Youtube, 22 July 2019 (Cantonese)
- Press Conference, ‘Questioning from Nabela Qoser’, Youtube, 23 July 2019 (English subtitles)
- ‘襲擊後10多小時見傳媒 記者起哄促林鄭月娥「講人話」’, Ming Pao, 22 July 2019
- 李怡, ‘世道人生：高尚與邪惡’,《蘋果日報》, 2019年9月23日
- 曾志豪, ‘講人話啊唔該!’,《蘋果日報》, 2019年9月24日
- 8/6警招會，‘真新聞女神利君雅為市民發聲問到阿sir O哂咀’, Youtube, 6 August 2019
- Tsang Chi-ho 曾志豪 and Ng Chi Sam 吳志森 (RTHK), ‘Hong Kong Headliner — Kill Bill’, China Heritage, 14 July 2019
- Wong Wing-sum 黃泳欣, ‘Hong Kong Headliner Makes Headlines’, China Heritage, 24 July 2019
- Tsang Chi-ho 曾志豪 and Lee Yee 李怡, ‘The Mandela Effect — The Unquiet End of Hong Kong Headliner’, China Heritage, 24 May 2020
- Hong Kong Apostasy, China Heritage, 1 July 2019-1 July 2020
We Go High, They Go Vile
Lee Yee 李怡
From Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of Hong Kong, to the senior government officials who face the public, as well as the spokespeople for the police — each and every one of them minces their words, has a crafty and sly appearance, . None of them even look like normal people!
Their hearts betray their appearance. The difference between the protesters and the power holders couldn’t be more obvious. …
The prospects for Hong Kong are clear: either it will strive for a greater good, or it will be forced to submit to perdition on the road to ‘One Country One System’.
— 李怡, ‘世道人生：高尚與邪惡’
- For the following skit from Headliner News on YouTube, watch from minute 6:30 to 8:30
Speak Like a Human Being!
Dowager: Eunuch, We were simply outraged by that rabble of journalists just now!
Eunuch: Your Majesty, please don’t be angry. Those journalists were truly outrageous — what are they thinking of, demanding that you ‘Speak Like a Human Being’? Don’t they know you simply aren’t familiar with normal, human speech? After all, you’ve hardly used it for years; why would they think you could do it now?
Dowager: And there was that one reporter who had the gall to ask me where We were last night? Do they think they are Simon Yam? Asking me what I’m doing this evening …
[Note: Simon Yam Tat-wah (任達華, 1955-), an actor and film producer, was stabbed at a promotional event on the Mainland in July 2019.]
Eunuch: That’s right! It’s the kind of question that you might ask your husband. What gives them the right to interrogate you like that?
Dowager: The national emblem has been sullied, how could We possibly go anywhere else? Naturally, we are focussing on how best to express Our ‘strong condemnation’.
[Note: A reference to Carrie Lam’s frequent, and laboured, use of the expression ‘condemn’ 譴責 hin2 jaak3 and strongly condemn’ when talking about the Anti-Extradition Bill protests.]
Eunuch: Quite so:
Resolutely and Uncompromisingly Condemn.
Dowager: Didn’t I condemn? The journalists say I’m just repeating myself and have nothing new to offer. But they don’t appreciate the fact that We simply can’t think of anything else to say.
Eunuch: Fortunately, Your Highness used the expression ‘The Whole City is Outraged’ [by protesters who defaced the Chinese national emblem at the entrance to the Hong Kong Liaison Office on 21 July 2019], rather than ‘Both Humans and the Gods are Infuriated’.
Dowager: Indeed, otherwise people would think I’d be mixing things up with [the words of the satirical song] ‘Who’s Guessing About Ho’s Family Graves’.
[Note: Protesters attacked the graves of the family of Junius Kwan-yiu Ho 何君堯, a pro-Beijing political loudmouth who had openly supported the thugs who had attacked people at Yuen Long. A satirical song — ‘何家仆街何家猜’, ‘Ho’s Clan is Guessing Who Fucked Up Those Hos’ — was immediately produced by an anonymous author that ridiculed Ho.]
Eunuch: But, Your Majesty, why didn’t you call the White Shirts at Yuen Long [who attacked people] ‘rioters’?
Dowager: Didn’t I? I thought I’d said that.
Eunuch: Dowager, please, don’t: you know you didn’t.
Dowager: Anyway, what do you mean they were rioters? Many of them were older gentlemen — fathers, uncles; they have nicknames and we know their full names. If we called them ‘rioters’ wouldn’t that be tantamount to treating them like strangers?
Eunuch: You have a point.
Dowager: Those reporters even asked me if the police and the triads were actually in cahoots and involved a major sham performance. How would We know? The only way would be to set up an independent commission of inquiry!
[Note: ‘a major sham performance’, literally ‘Great Dragon and Phoenix’. Great Dragon and Phoenix 大龍鳳 is the name of an old Hong Kong theatre company and, because of some of its grandiose productions, its also a byword for a calculated attempt to deceive or cheat.]
Eunuch: Your Majesty, that’s impossible: the Police have already sent a text to you saying that under no circumstances can there be an independent commission of inquiry. Otherwise you might endanger the support you’ve been getting from them.
Dowager: It’s not up to me who should resign. First there was a commission then it was decommissioned. I’ve failed.
Eunuch: Dowager, many ministers at court are revolting, they are even signing petitions with their official IDs and disassociating themselves from you.
Dowager: What IDs?
Eunuch: Like this one.
Dowager: What, even you are revolting?!
Eunuch: Your Majesty, I have no choice, I must obey Popular Will.
Dowager: Outrageous! Get me one of those IDs immediately! Even We want to disown Ourselves!
- 講人話,《頭條新聞——第十八集》, 27 July 2019
The Land of the Speechless
Imprisoned you’ll be sent to the Land of the Speechless
Here I stay to speak truth still, no matter what
My will is boundless; I remain undeterred
2012 & the End of Human Speech in China
‘Speak like a real person!’ (shuo renhua 说人话, literally ‘speak human language’) became a popular catchphrase in China in 2012. In a January 2013 interview, Ha Wen — a leading media personality and director of China Central Television’s annual Spring Festival Gala (Chunjie lianhuan wanhui 春节联欢晚会, or Chunwan 春晚 for short) — jokingly assured the 700 million-strong audience of the world’s most-watched television extravaganza that its hosts would ‘most definitely speak like real people’. For weeks, numerous articles in China’s state-guided media hailed Ha’s endorsement of ‘human language’. But Ha Wen’s jokey use of the term conveyed little of the critical reproach inherent in popular use that posits ‘human language’ (renhua 人话) as the opposite of the ‘inhuman language’ of the Party, seen as wooden and propagandistic. Ha co-opted the term, promising honest and natural communication only so as better to present a genial image of life under one-party rule.
The annual state-funded Spring Festival Gala that marks the Chinese New Year is a highlight in the mainland cultural calendar. It is also an occasion for eulogising the Communist Party in glitzy song and dance. The 2013 Gala featured, for instance, a choral tribute to ‘Great China and the Great Party’ (Weidade Zhongguo, weidade dang 伟大的中国,伟大的党), performed by hundreds of uniformed choristers arrayed in colour blocks representing the Chinese army, navy and air force.
From an official point of view, ‘human language’, as one article explains, means ‘conveying a sense of people’s lives, drawing close to the masses and speaking in down-to-earth as opposed to high-falutin ways’. It purposefully distances itself from the Mao-era slogans that were used to launch mass mobilisation campaigns and stir political passions and attempts a more savvy approach — public relations rather than propaganda — to boost the government’s image with a discontented public.
While wide-ranging online debate shapes and reflects popular discourse, the state media, for all its avowed efforts to ‘speak human language’, to use the official formulation, mostly ‘maintains a unified caliber’: it stays ‘on message’. Observations on the growing gulf between official and everyday uses of the Chinese language (putonghua 普通话 as well as the other languages and dialects of the People’s Republic) have fuelled the ‘human language’ debate. The acclaimed novelist Yan Lianke (whose novel Serve the People [Wei renmin fuwu 为人民服务] depicts a wild, illicit love affair during the Cultural Revolution in which the characters turn each other on by spouting Maoist slogans) puts it this way:
‘Lies, meaningless words and pretentious-sounding blather become the official language used by the government, taught by our teachers and adopted by the world of art and literature. This kind of language is also creeping into the lives of ordinary people. There are currently two conflicting language systems in China. One belongs to the state, the other to ordinary people.
‘Why? Why are ordinary people repeatedly calling for government officials to “speak human language” and “do human things”? These requests reflect people’s resistance to the official version of memories that has been administered to them. The state is not the only player to be blamed for the nation’s amnesia in today’s China. We must also look at Chinese intellectuals, as we appear to be content with this forced amnesia.’
These words are part of an op-ed by Yan published in English translation in the New York Times on 1 April 2013. The Beijing-based author has, so far, not released the original Chinese text. In China, news of the article and its web link soon appeared in a variety of Weibo posts. With rising levels of English-language sophistication in China, even translated dissent only accessible via proxy servers has become an important part of social criticism.
In the essay, Yan speaks of ‘two conflicting language systems’ to highlight the difference between the interests of the state and what Chinese citizens want. This neat opposition obscures, however, the intricate dynamics of mainland public discourse. In vocabulary and idiom, official and non-official uses of Chinese are highly interdependent. When people proudly call themselves ‘ordinary’ (putongren 普通人), they draw on the Communist sense of ‘the masses’ (qunzhong 群众). Similarly, when they identify as ‘Chinese’, or speak of belonging to ‘China’ and ‘Chinese civilisation’, they draw on phrases in the official language that have powerful political and cultural connotations that may differ from those of previous historical eras.
On the one hand, the Chinese people on- and off-line may frequently ridicule official language; on the other, its formulations of ideals and values — what is known by some as ‘New China Newspeak’ (Xinhua wenti 新华文体) — have helped to shape how Chinese people today understand notions of community and social wellbeing. Even when people diverge from the state in their views, party formulations and linguistic tutelage still leave their marks on the way they express their criticisms and hopes. … …
Living under Nationalist rule, the best-known Chinese writer of the twentieth century, Lu Xun (1881–1936), used the expression ‘human language’ to highlight the patriarchal nature of Chinese society and politics. He had placed his hopes in the then-besieged Communist Party, even though he detested the dogmatists it attracted. In his 1933 essay ‘Human Language’ (Ren hua 人话), he mused:
‘ “Human language” is by no means singular for there are very many types: there’s the language of the English and the language of the Chinese. In Chinese, we have “the language of upper-class Chinese” and “the language of lower-class Chinese”… . At present a lot of writers have taken to writing books in the style of letters to the young. We can take it as read that they are using “human language” but the problem is we don’t know which one. Why don’t they write for older people? Aren’t older people worth educating too? Or is it that they think of the young as pure and honest and thus easy to hoodwink?’
Authoritarian power adopts the patriarchal posture of knowing what is in everyone’s best interests…. It justifies its intolerance of criticism in terms of protecting that collective interest. In this regard, the present government under Xi Jinping has followed its predecessors by resorting to censorship, intimidation, arrest and detention whenever it perceives a threat to its interests. Because digital technology and the Internet have enabled increasing numbers of citizens to speak back to power, China’s Communist Party leaders have made a special effort to sound more benign. But there is no getting around the fact that they continue to conceive of language as a tool of social control. We are not privy to how these leaders speak at home or among their intimates, but in public their language is ex cathedra.
— from Gloria Davies, ‘Fitting Words’
chapter 7, Civilising China, 2013
ed. Geremie R. Barmé & Jeremy Goldkorn
(The Cantonese cover of the song ‘Speechless’ from the Walt Disney film Aladdin)
主唱：Claudia Koh 許東晴
狂濤怒海 湧進 鬧市街角
活埋 獨有別幟 的思索
蟠泥陷沙 總會喚退 知覺
你 勢弱言輕 怕得 虛作無聲
退縮於扣查嚴令 要暫停 你路程 去求榮
讓閉緊的舞台平靜 有劇情 有盛名 要奉承
我 勢弱言輕 決不 虛作無聲
哪管他扣查嚴令 會暫停 我路程 也盡情
喊出 一句完整 喊出 一句提醒
滲血的祭台長盛 有內情 有佚名 要服刑
要暫停 我路程 也盡情 喊出 我心聲
有內情 有佚名 要服刑
有罪名 有極刑 會把你 叫醒？
I Won’t Go Speechless
Here comes a wave meant to wash me away
A tide that is taking me under
Broken again, left with nothing to say
My voice drowned out in the thunder
But I can’t cry
And I can’t start to crumble
Whenever they try
To shut me or cut me down
I can’t stay silent
Though they wanna keep me quiet
And I tremble when they try it
All I know is I won’t go speechless
From the film Aladdin: