Constitutional and Legislative Provisions Governing the Use of Language in the Hong Kong SAR

41 Pages Posted: 21 Nov 2010

See all articles by Anne S. Y. Cheung

Anne S. Y. Cheung

The University of Hong Kong - Faculty of Law

Date Written: November 19, 2010


By the year 2009, Hong Kong has been China’s Special Administrative Region (SAR) for more than a decade. To some, it must have sounded politically incorrect and utterly odd that Hong Kong is being referred as a "post-colony". Yet, it is exactly this hybrid identity of being Britain’s former colony and China’s present SAR that has presented and confronted the ruler and its subjects with complex issues of governance.

Among the older generation of Hong Kong, lingering sentiments to the colonial good-old-days may well be alive. Even among the younger generation, allegiance to the new ruler may yet to take deeper roots. This tension, between the past and the present mirrors the hopes and fears of the local inhabitants, maybe best reflected in the adoption and usage of language in Hong Kong. Since the colonial days in 1845, English has long been perceived by the public as the language of power and success. Mastery of it endows one with an aura of elitism. This continues to hold true at the back of the minds of many despite the change in political sovereignty. Partly this can be attributed to the fact that English is being the most commonly used language among countries in the age of internationalization and globalization. More significantly, English has often been trumpeted by the ruling regime to be indispensable for Hong Kong’s role as a leading international financial centre, in which the rule of law is an essential fuel. In contrast, Chinese language pales off. It belongs to the vernacular, to the private.

It is easily understandable that English is essential for international trade and commerce. But as to whether the maintenance of rule of law in Hong Kong must be carried out in English is, perhaps, a topic too controversial to be easily settled. One has to bear in mind the simple truth that Hong Kong is the only common law system in the world where Chinese is used as a legal language. Inevitably, this would pose unique and unprecedented challenge to all those who have interactions with the legal system, including all living in Hong Kong, parties in lawsuits, court interpreters, lawyers and judges.

To capture the above interplay of social and legal forces behind the use of language in Hong Kong, this study focuses on studying the legal judgments concerning bilingual language policy in Hong Kong after July 1, 1997, the official date of the transfer of political sovereignty from British to Chinese governance. The study of the judicial voice is of particular importance as the Hong Kong judiciary is often praised to be the crown jewel of the British legacy. It is highly regarded as being impartial, independent, and authoritative. It is seen as the guardian of the rule of law in Hong Kong. Given this context, when litigants to lawsuits, civil servants, university students and lawyers take their cases to court in the name of language right, they have turned the court rooms into the ultimate arena to test the equal status of English and Chinese. Thus, in examining and analyzing judicial decisions on the use of language right and policy, one can find that in interpreting the laws governing bilingual adoption in Hong Kong, judges have shaped, regulated and organized Hong Kong society and its subjects for easy and convenient governance. Indirectly and unconsciously, judges have also contributed to the consolidation and maintenance of English to be the genuine, elite and legal language.

Through an analysis of various judgments, this paper argues that despite the popular use of Chinese in the community and in the court room, it is a language largely used to serve the functional purpose of easy governance. When it comes to priority of the powerful, authoritative and governing voice, English is still paramount. In particular, when law speaks, when judges speak, it must be pure, preferably in English.

Keywords: Hong Kong, language rights, bilingualism

Suggested Citation

Cheung, Anne S. Y., Constitutional and Legislative Provisions Governing the Use of Language in the Hong Kong SAR (November 19, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

Anne S. Y. Cheung (Contact Author)

The University of Hong Kong - Faculty of Law ( email )

Pokfulam Road
Hong Kong, Hong Kong


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