Editing Work

You are what you write: what the English of HKU president Zhang Xiang says about him

“I don’t understand how a woman can leave the house without fixing herself up a little,” the founder of the House of Chanel Gabrielle Chanel once quipped.

As a Hong Kong woman who writes in English professionally, I can’t help but equate a polished appearance with polished English copies. Just as none of the women who look well-groomed in public wake up in the morning looking that way, so, none of my successful attempts at turning out effortless English came naturally. The reality is, I – along with the majority of Hong Kong Chinese who wish to exude confidence and poise in their English correspondence – must always “fix our English up a little” before pressing “send.”

I was therefore baffled when I came across this error-laden note the University of Hong Kong president Zhang Xiang wrote to students at the height of the protests in 2019. As a mainland-born scientist, Zhang can of course be let off the hook for writing substandard English; as the head of the leading university in a cosmopolitan city, however, awkward English is bad optics. It didn’t help that a number of his mistakes could easily have been rooted out by anyone with above-average English. Did Zhang’s office lack a staff who could fix his copies up a little? 

In any case, predictably, that unfortunate note was shared on social media and the ever-unpopular Zhang was roundly ridiculed. Comments noting his poor English like this one were typical: “Even a DSE exam candidate could have penned a better letter. I have nothing but sympathy for students who have to put up with someone this adequate as their president.” 

Indeed, all Zhang’s missive managed to achieve was to make one feel sorry for HKU students, for the place where they are supposed to receive advanced schooling before making their way in the world is being led by someone who is indifferent to their well-being, not to mention someone whose command of English is so shaky that he couldn’t help but inadvertently let on this indifference.

Below is Zhang’s letter; in brackets are my comments on it:

With the situation on campus now, I appeal to all HKU members to stay calm and rational.

(What right did Zhang have in urging others to stay calm, when he himself lacked even the nerve to give the anti-extradition law saga a name? )

If there are any who are planning to do anything with serious consequences, such as actions likely to injure people, I appeal to them NOT to do so.

(Which is more comical: the head of a once-storied institution still being in the dark about grammatical rules the average DSE candidate should have long figured out, or him having to resort to the tactic – usually favoured by teenagers – of stressing a point by putting a crucial word in caps?)

We want to protect our students and our beloved campus.

Please do NOT create any situation which will lead to police entering the campus to search, to investigate or to make arrests.

I urge you NOT to resort to violence as it will not solve any problems.

Please help the university. Please stay calm. We care about each of you.

(Ah well, more juvenile deployment of uppercase letters to reiterate pleas.

Is it just me, or is anyone else unnerved by Zhang’s interchangeable use of “I” and “we”? “We” may well have been Zhang’s management team at HKU. But it’s also conceivable that Zhang had let his vigilance slip, and “we” is a group of CCP-related folks he’s answerable to whose existence the public isn’t aware of. A possible scenario: it was this group that urged him to issue some sort of warning when students showed signs of staging protests at the campus. To get his superiors off his back, Zhang dashed off a note with little forethought – hence its sloppiness).

Zhang isn’t above playing the race card. A few months ago, when two other mainland-born academics were appointed as HKU vice presidents amid controversies over their ties to the CCP, Zhang retorted “were there similar uproars 20 years ago, when so many presidents and vice presidents hailed from Britain?” 

Zhang should really look within himself for why he is an object of scorn. Hiring an English copywriter would be a good start. After all, HKU still hasn’t deteriorated to the point where it’s not worthwhile to dignify it with presentable English.

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