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Anger Over Anti-Cantonese Moves in China

  • Heda Bayron

Protests have erupted in Hong Kong and Guangzhou over a plan by Guangzhou officials to ban Cantonese – the language of southern China – from prime-time television. Some Cantonese speakers say the move is an attack against their culture.

In scorching heat, scores of protesters in Hong Kong marched earlier this week to urge the city's government and Chinese authorities to preserve the Cantonese language and culture in southern China.

The protesters were angry over reports that Chinese authorities asked TV stations in Guangzhou to broadcast prime-time programs in Mandarin, also known as Putonghua, instead of Cantonese. Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong province, a booming manufacturing and business region.

The request came ahead of the Asian Games, which Guangzhou will hold in November. Thousands of Mandarin-speaking spectators are expected to attend the games.

Choi Suk-fong, the rally organizer, says authorities should not suppress one language in favor of another.

"Why can't Cantonese and Putonghua co-exist? Cantonese is an important part of the culture of the mainland and south China, and deserve respect and preservation," Choi said. "We shall defend and protect Cantonese from any threat of elimination."

Cantonese is spoken by approximately 70 million Chinese, mostly in southern China's Guangdong province, and in neighboring Hong Kong and Macau. Hong Kong's boisterous film and music industries have spread the language's influence through movies and songs that are popular in China and in Chinese immigrant communities around the world.

Beijing made Mandarin the country's official language in 1982. Despite having a national language, many Chinese people still have difficulty communicating with each other because of the dozens of regional dialects and languages in the country.

Andrew To, a member of the League of Social Democrats in Hong Kong, says the move to champion Mandarin further limits freedom of expression in the mainland.

"It's to sabotage the local tradition and culture of the Chinese people," said To. "We should maintain local culture and tradition because the People's Republic of China is a pluralistic society."

Guangzhou officials warned residents last week against rumor-mongering and participating in illegal protests over the issue.

But on Sunday, hundreds protested in Guangzhou for the second time in a week – a rarity in the mainland where protests usually are banned. A few protesters and journalists were shown on television being dragged away by security authorities.

Unlike their compatriots in the mainland, Hong Kong residents can freely stage protests, under the "one country, two systems" formula of administration.

A handful of Guangdong residents joined the march in Hong Kong, like this student who said the protesters have a right to express their opinion about protecting Cantonese.

But he wore a mask to hide his identity, saying he fears a backlash when he returns to the mainland.

REPORTER: "What kind of problems?"

STUDENT: "I don't know. But it's a good idea to not to let those things happen so I wear a mask."

He wore a T-shirt that said "You want us to shut up, we will speak louder in Cantonese."

Guangzhou government officials have tried to allay concerns about Cantonese, saying the government will continue to promote the language and culture. They say the government has no intention of abolishing or weakening Cantonese.

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