What is the price of two characters?

March 29, 2016 13:27
The National Palace Museum has 700,000 art treasures and documents. Photo: Wikipedia

The decision by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) to ban the word "National" (國立) from the name of a Taiwan university is a further small step in the "mainlandization" of Hong Kong and the imposition of its standards on the city.

The staff of the LCSD who took the decision were either acting on orders from Beijing or, more likely, on orders from superiors who want to bring the wording in line with that used in the mainland.

There the Xinhua news agency issues to its staff a long list of "banned words" that may not be used. Most have to do with Taiwan, such as its official name, the Republic of China (中華民國), and anything that implies it is a country or has a legal government of its own.

So Prime Minister (行政院長) and other titles must be put in brackets.

Until now, Hong Kong has followed the Reuters rule – calling someone or something by the name it uses itself; that is the international standard.

Now, it seems, the HK government wants to follow the mainland rule, in the face of the strong opposition of a majority of its citizens.

When I worked in Taiwan in the 1980s, it was the other way round. We had to follow the language rules set by a fiercely anti-Communist government. 1949, described in the mainland as "liberation" (解放), was called "the fall of the mainland" (大陸淪陷).

Any photo of Mao Tse-tung had the word "bandit" (匪) stamped on it.

With the abolition of martial law in 1987 and end of political controls of the media, these rules were abandoned. Newspapers, magazines and television stations decide themselves what words to use.

If other departments follow the rule of LCSD, it will become a nightmare for Hong Kong people and institutions that have exchanges and events with counterparts in Taiwan.

Dozens of institutions there have the word "National" in their name; it means that they were established by the central government and not the city or local one. Some were set up before 1949.

During the planning of these events, the Taiwan people will look their Hong Kong friends in the eye and ask why they have to change their name: in the name of Communist ideology?

These institutions include National Taiwan University, the most famous college on the island; National Museums of History and of Literature; and, the most famous, the National Palace Museum (NPM), which has 700,000 art treasures and documents brought from the mainland in 1948 and 1949.

In June 2014, 231 works from the NPM were due to go on display at the Tokyo National Museum, after 16 years of negotiations.

Eight days before the opening, posters appeared on Tokyo streets and metro and the high-speed train advertising the event but without the word "National".

This was not a decision of the Tokyo museum but media sponsors who did not want to annoy their mainland clients.

After intense media coverage in Taiwan and strong political pressure, the posters were removed, the last one at 4 a.m. on June 24, the day of the opening.

The director of the NPM took the 9 a.m. flight to Tokyo, in time for the opening at 2 p.m. The Tokyo museum director Zeniya Masami bowed and apologized.

A total of 658,311 visitors went to the exhibition.

“The NPM has never been degraded in collaborative exhibitions with other nations, such as the US, France, Germany and Austria,” the museum said in its 2014 annual report.

The refusal of the mainland to use its full name is one reason why the NPM has never loaned a piece there – while it has exhibited its treasures in museums across the world.

Does the Hong Kong government want to guarantee that it can never show pieces of the NPM in the city, for the sake of two Chinese characters?

Hong Kong is an international city that is home to peoples and cultures from many different countries.

People and institutions from Taiwan contribute greatly to the richness and diversity of its cultural and educational life.

One recent example is The Inspired Island II (島嶼寫作), a series of seven films about famous literary figures, three from Hong Kong and four from Taiwan. They have played to packed houses in Hong Kong this year.

At a launch event in January at Hong Kong University, former Taiwan Culture Minister Lung Ying-tai (龍應台) said: “Regardless of the political disarray or uncertain future, there is one thing we must hold on to, and that is our culture, which is our passport to the world.”

Does the government want to sacrifice this diversity in the name of political ideology?

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.