Budget Localism: Much Talk, Little Substance

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(This article was originally published on March 2, 2016 on fragrantdelta.)


Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah clearly outdid Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying in the delivery of his 24 February Budget speech.

Compared to the criticism that Leung’s Policy Address received for its emphasis on Beijing’s One Belt, One Road strategy, Tsang’s speech has earned a warmer reception. Some pan-democrats have even lauded the address as the most Hong Kong-relevant in years. As for the public, the HKU Public Opinion Programme has announced that this year’s Budget received 60.2 marks out of 100, the highest rating since 2010.

The Budget did include some important relief measures, such as hefty tax reductions and increased social welfare allowances. This aside, the media (SCMP, StandardEJinsight, Ming Pao, Apple Daily, Wen Wei Po) has devoted much attention to Tsang’s conciliatory tone, particularly his efforts to express an understanding of a local identity. Apart from expressing his worries about social divisions, the Financial Secretary invoked a Canto-pop song to describe the road Hongkongers were walking and even declared that the government would allocate HK$20 million to support Cantonese language films.

If Tsang is trying to make himself a politically palatable choice in advance of next year’s Chief Executive election, he is doing a relatively good job. However, those who would welcome a Tsang run should prepare some tough questions for the potential candidate. After all, despite his soothing words, the Financial Secretary offered no clear evidence that either he or the government supports local identity development, let alone the use of the local dialect.

When it comes to Tsang, this is not a minor issue. On the one hand, the Financial Secretary has gone out of his way to claim that he understands localists. For example, the day after the speech, he declared on the radio that he is a localist too. This was barely two months after a much talked-about blog post, in which Tsang draws a parallel between local identity formation and his own experiences with sports.

On the other hand, Cantonese is one of the most obvious markers of difference between Hong Kong and the broader mainland and a lightning rod for local activists who claim to hold the cultural line against northern influence. It is no coincidence that the same prickly environment that caused Tsang to sound a conciliatory note has produced Cantonese-language advocacy operations such as Societas Linguistica Hongkongensis (港語學) as well as worries about the death of Cantonese.

Therefore, it makes sense to put Tsang’s words, whether intended as on olive branch or otherwise, in context.

Paltry Support for Canto-Film

First of all, a HK$20 million allocation for Cantonese film production is hardly a windfall for the industry. For reference, the Film Development Fund that will receive the money also received a HK$300 million injection in July 2007 and another HK$200 million injection in May 2015. The second injection was meant to subsidize “low-budget” films with a production budget not exceeding HK$10 million. HK$20 million sounds like a lot, but, in the world of film production, it is a relatively small sum.

Second, the other HK$500 million that has been injected into the fund is not expressly tied to Cantonese-language film production. This is important, as, in recent years, the local film production industry has hit upon a relatively lucrative and competing model ofshooting hybrid films for the mainland market.

Stephen Chow’s recent blockbuster, The Mermaid, is a textbook case. The box-office-hit fantasy tale was shot in Mandarin on mainland sets using non-local actors for a production cost of HK$60.72 million, a sum that China’s Hehe Pictures was happy toback with a sky-high box-office guarantee that could only be satisfied on a national scale. The list of producers includes China Film Group, the country’s largest SOE film company. Little is truly “local” about this movie.

In his budget speech, Tsang invoked the other oft-cited market option for the industry – that of Guangdong and its population of 100 million. While relevant, this smaller market competes with the larger and more lucrative mainland market for the attentions of local filmmakers who, in total, produced just 51 films in 2014, down from several hundredper year in the mid-1990s.

Canto Education: A Litmus Test

Finally, any greater attention that the HK$20 million injection might bring to Cantonese must be considered against the backdrop of the status and health of the dialect in Hong Kong itself.

It may be a bit melodramatic to proclaim the “death of Cantonese” in a territory where89.5 percent of the population speaks the dialect at home. Yet, on the language education front, interesting changes are afoot. It is becoming increasingly difficult for parents who want their children to learn in Cantonese to find schools that employ it as the medium of instruction. Societas Linguistica Hongkongensis has found that 71 percent of primary schools and 25 percent of secondary schools now use Mandarin.

As two professors of the Hong Kong Institute of Education have pointed out, government funding for language instruction has long prioritized English and Mandarin at the expense of Cantonese. To date, local students gain little instruction in Cantonese syntax, phonetics and pragmatics. In fact, Hong Kong’s Standing Committee on Language Education and Research (SCOLAR) only began promoting Cantonese pronunciation in 2007.

“Being able to speak and understand a language does not mean that one ‘knows about’ the language,” the authors note. In other words, government efforts to raise students’ capabilities in English and Mandarin come at the expense of enhancing those pupils’ ability to professionally apply Cantonese, such as in the workplace or even – dare one say it – in film production.

Why should Tsang and the Hong Kong government make airs about shoring up Hong Kong’s role as a center of regional cinema if local children are given the message daily that learning the local language is neither useful nor desirable?

Tsang the Politician

Here, one must make an important point on Tsang’s behalf. As an individual, he may indeed hold the sympathies he claims to hold. But, as the Financial Secretary, he cannot single-handedly approve supporting measures to back his words. Tsang the individual cannot be equated to government policy.

Nevertheless, one can see that, through the lens of local identity development, the Financial Secretary’s budget speech is a meal that is heavy on the sauce but light on the substance. Listeners got a line from a Canto-pop song, a paltry film subsidy, and some words of concern. In exchange, Tsang got to play the peacemaker in front of the largely placid media.

He may indeed be Chief Executive material.