Guangzhou lockdown: Chinese test zero Covid – language censors don’t seem to understand
In many countries, cursing the government online is so commonplace that no one bats an eye. But that’s no easy task on China’s heavily censored internet.
That doesn’t seem to have stopped residents of Guangzhou from venting their frustrations after their city – a global manufacturing hub of 19 million people – became the epicenter of the nationwide Covid outbreak. containment measures one more time.
“We had to lock down in April and then again in November,” one resident wrote on Monday on Weibo, China’s restricted version of Twitter, before a post with profanity that included references to officials’ mothers. “Government didn’t subsidize – don’t you think my rent is worth the money?”
Other users left posts with instructions that loosely translated as “go to hell,” while some accused the authorities of “saying stupid things,” but polite phrases.
Such colorful messages are wonderful not only because they depict growing public discontent China’s relentless zero-tolerance Covid policy — using rapid lockdowns, mass testing, extensive contact tracing and quarantines to stamp out infections as soon as they appear — but because they’re visible at all.
Usually like this severely criticized the government policy the government’s army of censors would be quickly eliminated, but the posts were not affected for several days. And this, first of all, because they are written in a language that few censors fully understand.
The writings are in Cantonese, which originated in Guangdong province near Guangzhou and is spoken by tens of millions of people in South China. For speakers of Mandarin, the official language of China and supported by the government, it can be difficult to decipher, especially in its written and often complicated slang forms.
It seems to be the latest example of how the Chinese are using Cantonese – an irreverent language that offers ample opportunities for satire – to protest their government without the attention of all-seeing censors.
In September of this year, the US-based independent media monitoring organization China Digital Times noted that many disgruntled reports from Cantonese were censored in response to demands for mass Covid testing in Guangdong.
“Perhaps because Weibo’s content censorship system makes it difficult to recognize the spelling of Cantonese characters, many messages with sharp, bold and simple language still persist. “But if the same content is written in Mandarin, it may be blocked or deleted.” – said the organizationAffiliated with the University of California, Berkeley.
In nearby Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong, anti-government protesters in 2019 often used Cantonese words, both for protest slogans and to avoid potential surveillance by mainland Chinese authorities.
Now the Cantonese seem to be offering a way for those fed up with China’s continuous zero-covid lockdown to show their dissent more subtly.
Jean-Francois Dupré, an assistant professor of political science at TÉLUQ University who has studied Hong Kong’s language policy, says the Chinese government’s reduced tolerance for public criticism has prompted its critics to “innovate” in communication.
“Using non-Mandarin forms of communication appears to allow dissidents to evade online censorship, at least for a while,” Dupre said.
“This phenomenon reflects the distrust of the regime and the growing paranoia and the will of citizens to resist despite the risks and obstacles.”
Although Cantonese shares much of its vocabulary and writing system with Mandarin, it has no Mandarin equivalent in many slang terms, explanatory words, and everyday expressions. Its written form sometimes relies on rarely used and archaic characters or characters that mean something completely different in Mandarin, so Cantonese sentences can be difficult for Mandarin readers to understand.
Compared to Mandarin, Cantonese is very colloquial, often informal, and easily lends itself to wordplay, making it perfect for inventing barbs and prodding.
As anti-government protests swept Hong Kong in 2019, fueled in part by fears that Beijing would encroach on the city’s autonomy, freedoms and culture – these attributes of the Cantonese came into sharp focus.
“The Cantonese language was certainly an important vehicle for political protests during the 2019 protests,” Dupre said, adding that the language gave “a strong local flavor to the protests.”
He noted that entirely new characters were born spontaneously from the democratic movement, including the combination of “freedom” characters with popular swear words.
Other plays on written characters reflect the endless creativity of the Cantonese language, such as the stylized version of “Hong Kong”, which when read casually becomes “adding fat” – a rallying cry for protests.
Protesters have also organized rallies and found ways to protect their communications, fearing that mainland agents are monitoring online chat groups that oppose the authorities.
For example, because spoken Cantonese is not the same as Mandarin, some people have experimented with romanizing Cantonese – spelling the sounds using the English alphabet – so that a non-native speaker cannot understand.
Although the protests subsided after the Chinese government introduced a sweeping national security law in 2020, Cantonese continue to allow the city’s residents to express their unique local identity — something people have long feared will be lost as the city falls under Beijing. hold
For some, the use of Cantonese to criticize the government seems appropriate, as the central government aggressively pushes for the use of Mandarin in education and daily life across the country, such as in television broadcasts and other media. due to regional languages and dialects.
The effort became a national controversy in 2010 when state officials proposed increasing Mandarin-language programming on Guangzhou’s Cantonese TV channel — angering residents who have been involved in rare mass street protests and clashes with police.
It’s not just the Cantonese who have suffered – many ethnic minorities are raising the alarm that the decline of their mother tongue could end their already threatened cultures and ways of life.
In 2020, students and parents in Inner Mongolia will perform mass school boycotts About the new policy that replaced Mongolian with Mandarin in primary and secondary schools.
Such fears have long existed in Hong Kong and have grown since the 2010s as Mandarin-speaking mainlanders began to live and work in the city.
“There is an increasing number of Mandarin-speaking school children in Hong Kong schools, and they seem to commute between Shenzhen and Hong Kong every day,” Dupre said. “Through these meetings, the language shift in Guangdong was clearly visible to the people of Hong Kong.”
He said these concerns were fueled by local government policies that emphasized the role of Mandarin and called Cantonese a “dialect”, angering some Hongkongers who saw the term as sloppy and thought it should be called a “language”. ” instead.
In the past decade, schools in Hong Kong have been forced by the government to use Mandarin in Chinese lessons, while others have moved to teach simplified characters – the mainland’s written form – instead of the traditional characters used in Hong Kong. .
There was further outrage in 2019 when the city’s education chief said continuing to use Cantonese over Mandarin in the city’s schools could mean Hong Kong’s future loss of competitiveness.
“Given Hong Kong’s rapid economic and political integration, it is not surprising that Hong Kong’s language regime should be aligned with the mainland, especially when it comes to the promotion of Mandarin,” Dupre said.
This is not the first time that people on the mainland have found a way around censorship. Many use emoji to represent banned phrases, English abbreviations for Mandarin phrases, and images such as cartoons and digitally altered photos that are harder for censors to track.
But these methods have their limits by nature. In contrast, for the jaded residents of Guangzhou, Cantonese presents an endless linguistic landscape that insults their leaders.
It is unclear whether this subversive use of Cantonese will foster cooperation among speakers in southern China or whether it will prompt the central government to further curtail the use of local dialects, Dupre said.
So far, many Weibo users have taken the rare opportunity to protest China’s zero-covid policy, which has crippled the country’s economy, isolated it from the rest of the world, and disrupted people’s daily lives with the constant threat of lockdown. unemployment.
“I hope everyone can keep their anger at bay,” wrote a Weibo user, noting how most of the posts about the Guangzhou locks were in Cantonese.
“Seeing the Cantonese (authority) fighting uncontrollably on Weibo,” wrote another, using a smiley face.
“Learn Cantonese fluently and navigate Weibo without fear.”
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