Like their imperial predecessors, the government in Beijing presides over a vast empire; it has never been so large and so complex – 1.4 billion people, including 55 minorities with their own languages officially recognized and dozens more who are not recognized.
But call a government office in Manzhouli on the Russian border, Yili next to Kazakhstan and Lhasa, capital of Tibet, and you will hear the same Mandarin language spoken to you and the same standard phrases learned from official media and study meetings.
Like the Qing dynasty and like the British, French and Soviets, Beijing wants to run its empire through a single language, a single culture and a single administrative system.
But, on this flat surface of white paper, there is one bump — Hong Kong.
There is no other corner of China that sticks so fiercely to its language, its history, its culture, its jokes and its differences with the mainland.
Cantonese remains the majority language in the legislature, in business, in most school classrooms, in the media and daily discourse.
It is a wall that prevents non-speakers from taking jobs and understanding the society around them.
This is not the case elsewhere in China.
Manchurian has almost died out, like many minority languages because the young do not want to use them.
In Inner Mongolia, Mandarin is dominant, with Mongolians accounting for just 17 per cent of the population.
While Tibetans and Uighurs remain attached to their native languages, Mandarin is essential for higher education and a good job in the government, business or education.
Beijing does not like the exception of Hong Kong.
It wants it to be like other cities in China where Mandarin is dominant and its officials can operate easily; Cantonese can be a language for conversation and opera but only a “dialect”, like Sichuanese or Hunanese.
“I wonder how many people here will speak Cantonese in 30 years’ time,” said Wong Keung-sing, a taxi driver. “Since the handover, children have been learning Mandarin in school and are comfortable in it, unlike my generation.
Beijing is the boss now. It will order Mandarin to be compulsory in schools sooner or later and the Hong Kong government is powerless.
“Every day, the mainland sends 150 people on one-way visas to Hong Kong. Our government has no say in this. Who are these people? How many are agents who are part of the United Front campaign?” he said. “This mainlandization is inevitable.”
During the Occupy Central protests last year, academics, religious leaders and other activists said they were followed and filmed by people not in uniform.
They are looking for evidence to compromise them — sex outside marriage, taking money illegally, drunk and disorderly behavior or contacts that would be embarrassing.
Under the agreement that set up the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China’s security agencies are allowed to operate here but investigations and law enforcement should be carried out by local police.
But most people believe that the government here cannot in practice stop surveillance and intelligence-gathering by agencies as powerful as the Ministry of State Security, even though it cannot operate as freely as in the mainland.
In Macau, during the past six months, the impact of Beijing’s involvement has been startling.
In February, casino revenues plunged a record 49 per cent from a year earlier, the ninth straight month of decline.
The high-rollers who spent the most believe they are unsafe there because the casinos and government provide information about them to the mainland’s security agencies.
They prefer to take their custom to South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and other countries outside Beijing’s jurisdiction.
Macau is further along the road to integration than Hong Kong.
Its Chinese-language media are strongly pro-Beijing and civil society less active and politically involved than in Hong Kong. Protests are rare. Its economy is more reliant on the mainland.
The bridge from Macau and Zhuhai to Hong Kong and the high-speed railway are both ways to integrate the city more closely, diminish the border and make access easier for mainlanders.
So has been the flood of tourists. On the one hand, they have brought great wealth to the city’s retailers, hotels and restaurants.
On the other, it is a way of showing people here what it is like to be a mainland city.
The fact that the Hong Kong and central governments have been unable or unwilling to restrict the numbers shows this policy of integration — and the lobbying power of Shenzhen whose prosperity hinges greatly on easy access to the SAR.
How much strength does Hong Kong have to resist?
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