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Sociopolitical and Linguistic Contexts of Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a southern city in China of about 1,100 square kilometers, composed by Hong Kong Island, Kowloon Peninsula, the New Territories and the most part of Lantau Island. It has a population of almost 7 million, 98% being Chinese and the remainder coming from Philippines, Indonesia, the USA, Canada and the UK. Once as “a borrowed place living on borrowed time”, Hong Kong Island was ceded to the British upon the signing of the Treaty of Beijing after China’s defeat in the Opium War in 1842, and the Kowloon Peninsula was ceded in 1860 upon the signing of the Peking Convention. In 1898, the New Territories were leased to the British for 99 years (1898-1997) upon the signing of the Second Convention of Peking.


In colonial Hong Kong, linguistic hegemony was realized by establishing the supremacy of English education over vernacular education with the colonial government’s focus on the provision of English education for the elite. Even in 1974 Chinese was set as the co-official language with English, and it was actually lower than English in social status. The English version of government documents was treated as the final correct version when arguments arose.


In 1984, the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed between the United Kingdom and China paved the way for the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong on 1 July 1997, which officially marks the end of Hong Kong's 156 years under British colonial governance. Under the formula “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong, the Special Administrative Region, has its own currency, laws, education and social system and maintain its way of life for 50 years from the date of reunification.


The HKSAR government adopted a new language policy as “biliteracy and trilingualism” that both English and Chinese are the official written languages, and English, Cantonese, and Putonghua(Mandarin)are the official spoken languages. English is not regarded as a colonial language; instead, it is treated as a tool for international communication. In 1998, Putonghua was formally introduced into the school curriculum; and it gradually has become the language of instruction in schools, with 25% of schools in Hong Kong using English as the medium language.


According to the 2016 by-census, Cantonese was spoken by 94.6% of the Hong Kong population, with 88.9 percent as a first language and 5.7% as a second language. English, also an official language, was spoken by 53.2% of the population, with 4.3 percent as a first language and 48.9 percent as a second language. Mandarin was spoken by 48.6% of the population with 1.9 percent as a first language and 46.7 percent as a second language. However, in 2017, Mandarin surpassed English as the second biggest language in Hong Kong, thanks to the language policy of Hong Kong and the close interaction and communication between Hong Kong and the mainland of China.


Although the postcolonial government makes every effort to increase the proportion of schooling in Chinese, especially at the secondary level, it encounters opposition from parents who believe children can have an edge over their competitors in job-hunting and opportunity for further study. Whereas in 1960, 57.9% of pupils were in schools that claimed to teach in English, by 1980 the proportion was 87.7% and by 1990 it had reached 91.7%. On the other hand, the postcolonial authorities believe English could be a good tool to get access to international knowledge and communication while Hong Kong remains an international city tolerating different cultures and people. Therefore, they support the mixed language programs of Chinese and English.


Bray, M., & Koo, R. (2004). Postcolonial patterns and paradoxes: language and education in Hong Kong and Macao, Comparative Education, 40(2), 215-239.

Main Tables - Proportion of Population Aged 5 and Over by Able to Speak Selected Languages/ Dialects and Year. 2016 Population By-Census. Retrieved at

Tsui, A. B. M. (2007). Language Policy and the Social Construction of Identity: The case of Hong Kong. In A. B. M. Tsui, J. W. Tollefson (Eds.), Language Policy, Culture and Identity in Asian Contexts (pp.121-141). Mahwah, N.J., USA: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


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This information was originally published on the website of the International Network for Language Education Policy Studies ( as

Jing Zhu. (2018). Sociopolitical and Linguistic Contexts of Hong Kong. In F. V. Tochon (Ed.), Language Education Policy Studies (online). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin—Madison. Retrieved at: (insert link) 

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