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Move to Limit Cantonese on Chinese TV Is Assailed

July 29, 2010

By EDWARD WONG
The New York Times
July 26, 2010

BEIJING -- Protests over land grabs, industrial
pollution and poor work conditions often rattle the Chinese authorities.

Now add to that outrage over language policy.

More than 1,000 people gathered Sunday in
Guangzhou, in southern China, to demonstrate
against a local politician’s proposal to force a
major local television network to stop
broadcasting in Cantonese and switch to the
country’s official language, Mandarin.

The protest, which was raucous and impassioned,
ended peacefully after the police broke up the
crowd. But any mention of the demonstration was
wiped from many Internet forums on Monday, and
only one national newspaper carried a detailed
report, indicating that the pro-Cantonese
groundswell had become a politically delicate matter.

Cantonese is widely spoken in Hong Kong,
Guangdong Province ? whose capittal is Guangzhou
? and neighboring areas. Some call it a dialect
of Mandarin, a language spoken commonly in the
north, but a growing number of linguists say
Cantonese is a separate language. Northerners
generally do not understand it, but are used to
its strongly pitched sounds because of the
ubiquity of Hong Kong movies and Cantonese pop songs.

Concern over the loss of languages and dialects
in China is growing. In Tibet and Xinjiang, some
ethnic Tibetans and Uighurs say the use of
Mandarin as the official teaching language in
schools has weakened the fluency of the local
languages among many young people. Officials say
mastering Mandarin is important for students to
compete for jobs and university slots.

Two weeks ago, notices began popping up online
telling people to gather at 5:30 p.m. on July 25
at the Jiangnanxi subway station in Guangzhou to
oppose a proposal that was presented this month
by the local politician, Ji Kekuang. Mr. Ji, a
member of the local committee of the Chinese
People’s Political Consultative Conference,
suggested that the programs on Guangzhou
Television’s news and satellite channels start
using Mandarin instead of Cantonese. He said the
change would help accommodate tourists and
athletes visiting for the Asian Games in November.

The protesters on Sunday gave passionate speeches
to cheering crowds about the worth of Cantonese
and sang Cantonese songs, one news report said.
Young people wore T-shirts with “I Love
Guangzhou” written in characters common to
Cantonese script but absent from Mandarin script.
(Most characters overlap between the languages,
but there are notable exceptions.)

The English-language edition of Global Times,
aimed at foreigners living in China, carried the
one detailed report. It quoted Su Zhijia, a
deputy party secretary of Guangzhou, as he
rebutted rumors that the government planned to
completely reject the use of Cantonese. "The city
government has never had such a plan to abandon
or weaken Cantonese," Mr. Su said.

Most of the protesters appeared to be in their
20s or 30s. The owner of a restaurant by the
demonstration site said in a telephone interview
that the protesters had yelled out "Support
Cantonese!" and "Protest!" The protesters clogged
the roads and stopped traffic, said the
restaurant owner, who gave his name only as Mr.
Liao because of sensitivities about discussing
protests in China. “I couldn’t do business at
all,” he said. “They all blocked up my door.”

Lines of police officers formed human barricades
to try to keep the crowd from swelling, witnesses said.

The Cantonese-versus-Mandarin debate is fierce
even in Chinatowns in the United States, where
many residents traditionally spoke Cantonese or a
related dialect, Taishanese, because their
families came from Guangdong Province. But in
recent years, the number of immigrants from other
parts of China has grown, and Mandarin is now becoming the dominant language.

Xiyun Yang contributed reporting.
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