Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 11, November 2018
By Anders Corr, Ph.D.
China is one of history’s most dangerous countries. In August, the United Nations reported that China is holding approximately one million minority Muslims in Xinjiang concentration camps. China supports anti-democratic regimes and terrorist groups worldwide. Its military is seeking to expand its territory in: Japanese and South Korean areas of the East China Sea; Philippine, Malaysian, Bruneian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese parts of the South China Sea; and Indian and Bhutanese territory in the Himalayan mountains. President Xi Jinping has since 2013 increased military spending, hyped China’s nationalism, repressed minorities and human rights activists, eliminated term limits on his increasingly personal form of rule, and extended the geographic reach and individual depth of state surveillance.
Average citizens in democracies who see this trend can feel powerless in response. But there are tools at the disposal of empowered citizens and social movements to encourage, complement and accentuate actions taken by our democratic governments. Both citizen and government action is essential to encourage democracy and democratic elements in China, history’s most powerful totalitarian state.
These tools include consumer boycotts and protests at Chinese embassies, for example. But there is an additional social movement tactic that could powerfully communicate the world’s criticism: a boycott of mainland China’s national language, Standard Mandarin, a combination of the Putonghua dialect spoken in Beijing with simplified characters. Putonghua is also called Modern Standard Chinese, which was promoted since the 1940s, and which the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have zealously promoted since 1956 as a form of increasing state control beyond Beijing. I here call the combination of simplified characters and Putonghua, “PRC Mandarin” or “CCP Chinese”. Taiwan uses traditional characters and speaks a slight variant of Mandarin called Taiwanese Mandarin (Guoyu).
Until China adheres to global norms of democracy, peace, human rights, and international law, people globally who value democracy can and should boycott PRC Mandarin. This is not an argument to make Mandarin as a whole illegal, but to protest CCP-sponsored language where we can differentiate it from Taiwanese Mandarin, and where we see it proliferating in our own democratic communities, just as we might protest or even outlaw other fascist symbols. While PRC Mandarin is not a fascist symbol per se, it is a medium for authoritarian influence from a political party that some compare to dictatorship, totalitarianism and fascism.
A boycott of China’s flag and language then become a teaching moment for activists to educate voters on China’s excesses and policies through, for example, teach-ins on China’s human rights practices or advocacy of national economic sanctions that might democratize China’s approach to domestic and international politics, just as economic sanctions in the 1980s helped liberalize and democratize the Soviet Union, or eradicate apartheid from South Africa.
PRC Mandarin has since 1949, when the CCP captured the Chinese state, extended the CCP’s power and influence among minority language populations, for example in the provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet. PRC Mandarin is therefore a tool of CCP power, and is benefitted when democratic governments and international organizations translate the languages of democratic countries, for example Spanish, Hindi and English, into China’s simplified characters. The PRC preference for “one China”, which includes democratic Taiwan against its wishes, is reified when we fail to distinguish between PRC and Taiwanese Mandarin. Democratic governments support China’s attempts at extension of its authoritarian system when they allow, for example, China’s state-funded Confucius Institutes to teach PRC-style Mandarin on their soil. While China is actively obliterating the Tibetan, Uyghur, and other non-Mandarin languages of China, the U.S. and our democratic allies should not afford CCP-funded PRC Mandarin teachers with privileged access to our college students.
While translating PRC Mandarin into official documents may in the past have been wise engagement or accomodation of China in the hopes of turning it democratic, that hope has dwindled as experts realize that China’s growing wealth and power is changing us more than our values are changing China. Today, allowing the spread of PRC Mandarin appears more the foolhardy acceptance of a Chinese neocolonial or potential hegemonic power, than the good will of a democracy that celebrates diversity.
The danger of increasing CCP influence in democracies is real. Chinese nationals have bribed U.N. officials and lead Interpol. Former high government officials in the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand are on China’s payroll. Harvard, Yale, and Oxford universities have accepted hundreds of millions of dollars from Chinese-linked sources. In February, President Duterte of the Philippines, a former close U.S. ally in Asia, joked that China should make the Philippines into a province.
Finland faced a similar threat of authoritarian influence at the turn of the 19th century from Russia, called Russification. In their own cultural and national defense, the Finnish in 1901 used a language boycott against Russian to strengthen their independence and resist Russia’s attempts at absorption, as Russia de facto annexed much of Eastern Europe following World War II. Similar language boycotts, or conscious shunning strategies, were used by European nation-builders against church Latin after the Reformation, Icelanders against Danish starting in the 17th century, Irish against English in the 1940s, Bangladeshis against Urdu in the late 1940s, and South Africans against Afrikaans starting in 1976. All of these language movements were ways that local cultures used to resist their unwanted assimilation by outside cultures. Today, when unwanted CCP influence is spreading worldwide, a boycott of PRC Mandarin would help relatively permeable democratic cultures resist the CCP.
Some might claim that such a language boycott is racist. But it would not be a protest against the Chinese people or diaspora. Nor would it be against the richness of Chinese culture. Rather, a boycott of PRC Mandarin would target the CCP, and only the CCP. As part of the boycott, Taiwanese Mandarin could instead be promoted. The CCP has since 1949 used PRC Mandarin to obliterate cultural and racial diversity in China. China’s increasingly global influence today threatens to extend that practice worldwide. Conversely, protest and multiculturalism is essential in any democracy, and the right to protest, using such nonviolent tactics as a language boycott, are a hallmark of the freedoms that democracies give their citizens.
Democracies respect and defend their minorities and the rights of those minorities. While democracies allow the majority to rule, they ensure the rights of minorities in their constitutions with a bill of rights or a recognition of universal human rights. Japan, the United States and the Philippines, for example, have rich linguistic histories that include speakers of many Sinitic languages and dialects, and both traditional and simplified Chinese characters. Most Philippine Sinitic speakers, for example, use the Hokkien language and traditional characters, which is different than Mandarin.
In Taiwan, the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) government from 1945 to 1987 repressed the local language, Taiwanese Hokkien, and promoted Mandarin. The Kuomintang shared a preference for Mandarin with their Communist enemies in mainland China because both parties sought to extend the influence and territory of China. Since 1945, Mandarin in Taiwan has gradually replaced Hokkien. While modern democratic Taiwan stopped repressing the Hokkien language and retains its claim to the South China Sea only to please a relatively small faction of voters, the trend of increased Standard Mandarin use there is helpful to Communist China, which seeks to remove the cultural particularities and fragile new democracy of Taiwan, and absorb the currently independent country as its own territory. In the 1990s supporters of Taiwan independence sought to differentiate between PRC and Taiwanese Mandarin, replacing the PRC’s Standard Mandarin in the educational system with Taiwanese Mandarin. But they failed. They should take up the effort again if they want to improve their chances at remaining independent from the mainland.
China is seeking to claim Taiwan for its own, for example by cutting its diplomatic ties to countries around the world,and disallowing Taiwan to be listed as a separate country on the websites of international airlines. But Taiwan is fighting back, including by downgrading Mandarin, on August 27, to one of two official languages in the country, the other now being English.
Hong Kong is also worried about Chinese authorities forcing Mandarin on their majority, which are Cantonese speakers. A mainland Chinese professor recently ignited controversy for asserting that Cantonese is “merely a dialect” and proposing that Mandarin should be the official language of Hong Kong. When the CCP sees an opportunity, it will likely seek to replace Cantonese in Hong Kong with Mandarin. Judging from recent policy changes in Hong Kong regarding language usage in the educational system and other socioeconomic and political spheres where Mandarin is already displacing Cantonese, it could happen fairly quickly.
The CCP sees itself in a quiet war against all languages, politics, ethnicities and cultures other than Mandarin, communism, and international organizations with itself in the lead. And when the CCP considers a territory as part of China, a “core interest” of China, or within China’s expanding sphere of influence, the CCP prefers destroying a territory to letting it remain free. This was the case during negotiations between Britain and China over Hong Kong in the 1980s, and judging by China’s military buildup near Taiwan, it is the case for Taiwan today. The CCP advantages the Han race and the CCP against all others in China, and it cares more about its own power over a given territory, than the life found on that territory.
The CCP (and China’s Nationalist Kuomintang Party before them) used Mandarin to engage in state-building throughout the 20th century. The founder of modern Chinese nationalism, Dr. Sun Yat Sen, led the 1911 revolution. He advocated democracy, but he was also a social Darwinian, allied with the Russian communists, and constructed the idea, still powerful today, of the Han race and Chinese nation as in competition with first the Manchus and then white imperialism, including a war between the “white and yellow races”. The Kuomintang and then the CCP were deeply influenced by Sun Yat Sen’s racist nationalism, and sidelined non-Mandarin Sinitic languages and the cultural diversity of China to concentrate power in Beijing and create the expanding nationalist state that is China today.
The CCP continues to concentrate power internally, and alarmingly, appears to be preparing to engage in activities that lend themselves to global state-building in the future. This includes building a military with global power projection capabilities, promoting global trade of a mercantilist nature and with Beijing at its center, promoting PRC Mandarin through Confucius Institutes around the world, seeking to make China’s renminbi a foreign reserve currency, compromising global elites through various forms of income transfer, encouraging Chinese immigration abroad as a new form of colonialism, establishing international organizations like the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank over which China has control, and seeking to repurpose existing international organizations through Chinese nationals taking increasing numbers of international civil service positions in organizations like the United Nations and Interpol.
While the CCP has that mindset of domestic repression and promotion of its nationalism and communist ideology globally, we should not give an inch to the expansion of PRC Mandarin, especially by governments supposed to represent democracy and diversity, not autocracy and forced ethnic and political assimilation. True democracy always protects the small languages and minorities against majority bullies. Most immediately, China is bullying Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Philippines, and there are more Mandarin speakers globally (nearly a billion) than any other language. China’s allies are committing excessive violence against their own people in places like North Korea, Syria and Myanmar, which is now being investigated for genocide after the death of 25,000 minority Muslim Rohingya. So territories that China seeks to influence are within their rights to seek to discourage increasing Chinese influence in their societies, and we can support them by doing the same in ours. Any country that does not resist China’s growing cultural, economic and military power puts its own culture and democracy at risk.
Until China democratizes, improves its human rights, and stops its territorial aggression, we should nonviolently protest any further popularization of PRC Mandarin. Language boycotts worked in Iceland, Finland, Bangladesh, and South Africa to stop the growth of foreign autocratic influence, and it can work against China. When China rectifies its behavior, we look forward to once again opening our hearts and minds to Standard Mandarin and simplified characters.
Let’s save our multicultural bilingualism for more Taiwanese Mandarin, Hokkien, and Tagalog, for example. Let’s help the smaller struggling languages worldwide, and the biggest international languages now used by democracies. Let’s learn English, Spanish, Hindi, Portuguese, Bengali, Japanese, Punjabi, German, Javanese, Telugu, and French. Those in favor of democracy and reform in Vietnam should be given a podium to speak in Vietnamese. Even Standard Mandarin would be welcome, when it is spoken by Beijing’s persecuted human rights lawyers. Let’s recognize and support Taiwanese Mandarin for much-needed reinforcement to Taiwan’s democratic independence.
Language is political, symbolic, and builds upon itself. It is a medium of state power. The choices that governments make about the languages they accept today, will have future repercussions as to the orientation, autocratic or democratic, that those governments advantage in the future. China’s autocratic nationalism is in competition with the diverse and positive democratic patriotism we find in other parts of the world. As we have seen with other dictators in the past, one bad apple can ruin it for the rest of the world. This is especially true in the nuclear age. We need to take opposition to China’s nationalism up a notch, and that includes boycotting its national language until it democratizes.
Anders Corr is the publisher of the Journal of Political Risk. JPR Status: Opinion.