Arts, Culture & Media

Hong Kong residents say China's invading their TV sets

“Mainlandization” is threatening Hong Kong more than ever, some residents say. Just look at what's on TV.

Thousands of Hong Kong television viewers were outraged this week when they saw a news program broadcast with subtitles and graphics using the simplified Chinese characters favored on the mainland, and not the more complicated traditional script widely used in Hong Kong.

Spoken Cantonese and the traditional script are considered vital parts of Hong Kong's cultural identity. And some residents considered the TV program further evidence that Beijing is trying to exert greater control over the Chinese city-state, which is supposed to enjoy political and legal autonomy from mainland China under the "one country, two systems" policy.

More than 10,000 complaints have been made against TVB since it began broadcasting the prime-time Mandarin language program with simplified characters on Monday.

This is an excerpt from Monday's broadcast.

香港无线TVB普通话新闻用简体字幕

Among the outraged was Hong Kong pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo, who called on TVB to use traditional characters and not “Mao script” — a reference to the former Chinese leader Mao Zedong, who introduced the simplified character system in the 1950s to improve literacy.  

“Under the one country two systems rule our cultural heritage should be protected — and that includes the traditional script,” Mo said. “But TVB is using some legal loophole to put some Mao script on its programs.”

TVB defended the move, saying it was meeting the requirements of its license to provide Chinese subtitles, the South China Morning Post reported. But it was up to the TV station to decide whether to use simplified or traditional characters.

Chinese state media also waded into the furor. The People's Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, questioned why Hong Kong was so "over-sensitive towards simplified script" when other countries were happy to promote its use. 

"Bringing in political implications into this fight over traditional and simplified script, and contaminating it with hostile feelings, only creates an inexplicable rivalry," the commentary said. 

For many Hong Kong residents, however, the TV controversy is just the latest example of Beijing eroding the quasi-independence enjoyed by Hong Kong since Britain handed the city over to Chinese authorities in 1997.

The recent disappearances of five people connected to a Hong Kong publishing house, known for putting out books critical of China, have heightened those fears, too, and helped stoke violent demonstrations earlier this month during the Lunar New Year celebrations.

The ensuing riot was described as the most violent since the 2014 Umbrella Movement, when pro-democracy protesters occupied sections of the city for months.

Student activist Joshua Wong blamed the recent clashes on "two years of heated dissatisfaction and public distrust of the government.”

Protesters are "using force to defend the social values they believe in," Wong wrote.

What will they do to defend the written word?