Editing Work

Priscilla Leung Unmasked: what her English says about her

Priscilla Leung (梁美芬) was sensible enough to remove her music video “Add little bit of love” (愛心多一點)soon after it was met with ridicule on social media (a footage of it can still be found here ). Yet the fact remains she was sufficiently lacking in good taste to have gotten it produced in the first place.

Those who mocked Leung did so more out of gut reaction than anything else, but now that Leung has been chosen as the chairperson of Legco’s education committee and tasked with (in her words) “putting education back on the right track,” a considered analysis of what “Add a little bit of love” has revealed about her can help us foresee the kind of students she would like Hong Kong schools to turn out.

The first thing that struck me about “Add a little bit of love” was not so much Leung as the children who starred in it – they couldn’t have come across as more un-childlike. A look at Leung’s forced smile and stiff body language can readily explain why: the children were merely mirroring her. Neither is it difficult to guess the reason for Leung’s onscreen affectations. Her professed aim in producing the number was “to provide a counterpoint to all the violence the protesters have perpetrated.” Now, this take on last year’s unrest is a mere regurgitation of Beijing’s narrative, which completely ignores the disproportionate force used by the vastly more well-armed police. Leung therefore knows we know she has no claim to moral high ground, and it must have been her self-consciousness about being a hypocrite that led her to exaggerate her facial expressions and gestures in the video.

Leung’s moral pretensions extend to the way she writes as well. I happened to have read an English letter she wrote to her constituents earlier this year. Well, she writes the way she sang ”Add a little bit of love”: not only is there the same laboured outpouring of fake sentiments; there’s the same off-keyness in tone too, since in her letter she is toeing the party line in a foreign tongue.

To find an authentic Leung, we have to go back 30 years, when her on-camera awkwardness was due to the naivete of youth instead of to her unease at being a phony: she was a reporter at the time of the1989 pro-democracy movement in Beijing when she expressed wonder at the way Hong Kong news clippings – more trustworthy than mainland ones – made their way to the central government; there they gave mainland officials a window into what was really happening on the ground. The irony is, thanks to Leung’s trajectory from freedom-loving reporter to CCP accomplice (the move to curb freedom of thought in Hong Kong kids is only her latest act of outrage), her case history can offer a window into how the CCP coaxes people into misrepresenting the truth on the party’s behalf. Matthew Pottinger, one of Trump’s national security advisers, has identified a favourite mind game that the CCP uses on its targets: “we own the future, so make your adjustments now.” Perhaps it is this trick that Leung has fallen victim to.

Naturally, I can’t turn my back on the pleasure of putting Leung in her place by demonstrating how her English puts her crassness as a CCP lackey on full display. So, below is my re-write of that letter she wrote to her constituents.

“In the past 12 months, all of us lived through a period of horror never witnessed in Hong Kong. It was initially the violent disruption of our society and daily lives by unruly and radical demonstrators, followed by the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic.”

The only thing this paragraph really achieves is leaving the reader confused about Leung and her intentions in penning the letter

Is she so ignorant of history that she would (1) deem the atrocities the Japanese committed in Hong Kong in the second world war as less grim than what the protesters have done? (2) rate Covid-19 as “unprecedented,” even though its death toll is still nowhere near that of, say, the 1918 Spanish Flu’s?

In painting the Hong Kong protesters in the worst possible light, is Leung so keen to score political points that she’d overlook the fact that the majority of the protesters were peaceful and therefore can’t be justly described as “unruly and radical”?

Is her liking for hyperbole intended ( “all of us lived through a period of horror never witnessed”), or is it simply an outcome of her tone-deafness to the nuances of the English language?

The truth is probably a bit of all of the above.

My rewrite: “To say the past year hasn’t been easy would be an understatement. As our health – physical, mental, financial – convulses under the double whammy of social unrest and COVID 19, never in recent memory has HK been brought to its knees on so many fronts.”

“The emergence of extreme and dangerous domestic terrorist activities from the police confiscation of automatic weapon and home-made bombs to the frequent illicit use of Molotov cocktails on Hong Kong’s streets have caused tremendous distress amongst the peace-loving and law-abiding people of Hong Kong.”

Leung’s ploy is to prompt those with pro-government tendencies to self-classify themselves as peace-loving and law-abiding, and then draw them into adopting her take on the protests. Leung’s awkward construction of this paragraph, however, makes it difficult for her to reach this goal.

For one thing, this 44-world paragraph has neither a single punctuation nor an easily-identifiable subject. And so disorienting for the reader is the phrase “the emergence of extreme and dangerous domestic terrorist activities from the police confiscation of automatic weapon and home-made bombs to the frequent illicit use of Molotov cocktails” – surely, the police’s confiscation of weapons doesn’t fall under the category of “extreme and dangerous domestic terrorist activities”?

My re-write: “In particular, time and again, the following scenario would distress us to no end: typically, what was billed as a peaceful march would quickly spiral out of control, as the socially alienated – their ranks ever-burgeoning – indulged in their taste for violence by hurling homemade bombs and Molotov cocktails. Some were even found to be in possession of automatic weapons.”

“The rioters’ outrageous behavior has been challenging the bottom line of the rule of law, which is a proud symbol of Hong Kong. Moreover, in parallel with the pandemic crisis, we also need to be prepared for the challenges of the economic downturn in the coming months.”

I don’t see how the rule of law can be a “proud symbol” of Hong Kong, as it’s not peculiar to Hong Kong – all democracies have the rule of law.

Another detail Leung has gotten wrong: a symbol is usually something concrete. So, the bauhinia is a symbol of Hong Kong the way the rule of law – an abstract ideal – is not. The safe (if conventional) route for Leung to take is to simply describe the rule of law as “a cornerstone for Hong Kong’s prosperity.”

My rewrite: “The need to restrain rioters from wrecking further damage has become all the more pressing, now that Hong Kong has to focus on combating the virus, which has created such a climate of economic uncertainty in the foreseeable future.”

“Facing such challenges, it is inevitable that the Central Government has to insert the National Security Law upon Hong Kong in order to restore the law and order for our home. I understand that there are grievances against the government’s mishandling of crisis and major contentious issues, which the government should be held accountable. Nonetheless, it is not by entangling in unresolved political deadlock could the liveliness and strengths of the city be restored.”

I find it hard to believe Leung is a barrister and law professor – in English, we don’t say the authorities “insert a law upon” a place; we say they “impose a law on” it.

In this paragraph, without a warning Leung abruptly departs from her previous protesters-are-to-blame stance: suddenly she is prepared to concede that the government is at fault for mishandling the protests. But if she had planned to make this admission all along, shouldn’t she have been less scathing on the protestors in the previous paragraphs?

“It is not by entangling in unresolved political deadlock could the liveliness and strengths of the city be restored” – judging from the wording of this sentence, I have a feeling that Leung is taking pains to lend the sentence an air of sophistication. Unfortunately, her effort flounders because she hasn’t gone that extra mile in ridding it of its niggling defects:

  • A political deadlock is by nature unresolved, so there’s no point in inserting “unresolved” before “political deadlock.”
  • “Could” indicates possibility while “can” indicates ability. Since Leung wants to express confidence that Hong Kong can recover its old self, “it is not by entangling in unresolved political deadlock COULD the liveliness and strengths of the city be restored” should have been “it is not by entangling in unresolved political deadlock CAN the liveliness and strengths of the city be restored.”
  • Compare “the liveliness and strengths of the city (can) be restored” (Leung’s version) with “the city can reclaim its dynamism.” An active voice serves Leung’s purpose better.

My rewrite: “While the Government’s mishandling of the protest crisis is frustrating, even infuriating, making allowance for its lapses in judgement isn’t the same as condoning them. And now that, with the advent of the national security law, some semblance of life as we know it has returned, you have my word that as Hong Kong reclaims more of its dynamism, I will pressure the government to make amends for its past missteps.”

“For the time being, may our community put it as a priority to cease violence and to combat the pandemic together. Let this home belonging to everyone recover her vitality and her beauty. We need your help, wisdom and determination to join hands to rebuild Hong Kong! Once again, stay healthy, care more our neighbourhood. Let our community come back to civilization. When conflicts arise, may the rule of law govern. Wish you all the best!”

The last paragraph further strengthens the impression that – her status as a professor notwithstanding – over the years, Leung has not bothered to refine her understanding of English usage.

“Put it as a priority” should have been “make it a priority.”

I’m sure Leung didn’t intend to call upon her constituents to “cease violence”; she must have meant instead that they “should have zero tolerance for violent behaviour.”

“Home belonging to everyone” – why not use “our home” instead?

“When conflicts arise, may the rule of law govern” – this sentence is rather solemn in tone. By itself this isn’t a problem. What makes it problematic is it’s followed by a cheery “wish you all the best.” Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always felt one should develop the ability to write in a consistent tone, because this know-how is one mark of a cultivated person, and a cultivated person is more likely to have more doors opened to her as she goes through the vicissitudes of life.

“Let our community come back to civilization” – in suggesting that the protesters have thrown Hong Kong into the depths of savagery, Leung is acting on the same impulse that prompted her to overact in “Add a little bit of love” – she is meeting her obligation to trumpet Beijing’s narrative, so that she can remain in its good graces.

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