The Hong Kong campus of the renowned British boarding school Harrow said in a recent letter to parents that from the academic year 2018-19 onwards, its Chinese language streams in the lower school would be unified under one curriculum, to adopt the simplified Chinese characters over the traditional ones now in use in Hong Kong.

Harrow Hong Kong’s principal deputy head (curricular) A Davies noted in the letter dated June 4 that “whilst we know there are many reasons why our context makes the teaching of traditional characters desirable, we need to prepare our pupils to be fully literate in the context that Hong Kong will be in by 2047.”

The letter also stressed that as a British international school where English was the language its curriculum was taught in, its decision to switch to simplified Chinese predominately used across China would enable it to produce and sustain excellence in the Chinese program.

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Harrow Hong Kong would start teaching simplified Chinese only to its students from 2019, it said in a recent letter to parents. Photo: Handout

It’s also believed that the medium of instruction of Chinese courses at Harrow Hong Kong will also be changed to Mandarin, rather than the city’s Cantonese.

To some, Harrow’s new language policy is seen as yet another vote of no confidence in Hong Kong’s future, two decades into its reunification with China.

The former British colony was promised a “high degree of autonomy” under the unique constitutional framework of “one country, two systems” when London and Beijing sat down to delineate the territory’s political future back in the 1980s, which ensured a smooth transfer of sovereignty in 1997. Beijing’s promises of respect for Hong Kong’s own system covers the 50-year period until 2047.

In the post-handover era as a special administrative region under Beijing, there has been a perceived erosion of Hong Kong’s liberties and institutions, as evident in a host of incidents impinging on people’s freedom of speech and assembly and their right to open and fair elections.

Hong Kong’s post-handover constitutional document, known as the Basic Law, stipulates that, alongside English, traditional Chinese with its standardized character sets is also an official language in the city, while simplified Chinese, which has less stokes for most characters, is the lingua franca in the mainland of China.

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Traditional Chinese characters meaning Cantonese (left) and their corresponding simplified characters.

The differences are mainly in the category of written forms and students taught solely in either traditional or simplified Chinese normally find it easy to recognize the other form of writing.

Harrow Hong Kong’s decision is indeed in line with the trend among international schools locally and overseas to use simplified Chinese characters to teach Mandarin to pupils. Other than mainland China, Mandarin and simplified characters are also used across Southeast Asia, particularly in Singapore.

Harrow also runs campuses in Beijing and Shanghai where simplified Chinese is taught.