Language: groundswell forces a retreat by Chinese authorities

The people of Guangdong have managed to defend Cantonese as their prime time television language
N. Jayaram
29 September 2010

Damage control seems to have been effective and the rumblings from the early July thunder have become faint reverberations. But that it was required at all shows the capacity of Chinese authorities to disregard their own and other countries’ history and ride roughshod over people’s preferences.

It all started with a proposal aired by Ji Keguang, an official of a municipal-level advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, to use Putonghua (Mandarin) in place of Cantonese as the prime time television language in Guangzhou, capital of the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. The reasoning was that as Guangzhou would be hosting the 16th Asian Games from 12 November to 27 November, its television station could reach out to visitors through Putonghua broadcasts.

Knowing that in China a leading cadre’s mere proposal can more often than not translate into an ineluctable command, the public raised their voice in protest. As demonstrations are almost never permitted (except on a few occasions such as when the government needs to send anti-Japanese or anti-US messages) and as organizers can expect swift punishment, many people took to flash-mob style tactics or got onto the internet.

People in Hong Kong, the former British-ruled territory, have fewer restrictions to contend with, however. They have taken to the streets more than once in solidarity with their Cantonese-speaking kin. The press in the Special Administrative Region, as Hong Kong is called since it returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, has been regularly reporting reactions over the contretemps in Guangzhou, 140 kilometres (90 miles) up north.

Although Ji Keguang, the official who started it all, stuck to his guns, claiming that a few people with unspecified “ulterior motives” were behind the adverse reaction, the provincial authorities sought to reassure the public that there was no move to sideline Cantonese.

All too often the Chinese authorities react by clamping down hard on protest activity, however justified or well-founded. In this case, they took care over dousing the fire. A few people were threatened, and reporting within China was muzzled, but by about early to mid-August it was clear that the wishes of the people of Guangdong had prevailed over Ji.

Why did the authorities relent?

The old Chinese saw, “Mountains are high and the Emperor far away”, is not a valid explanation in these days of instant communication. After 61 years in power, the Communist Party of China has a vast army of officials primed to abort dissent anywhere. Rather, the authorities might have taken into account the fact that Guangdong is more open to the world than other parts of the country. The province has witnessed three decades of economic reforms and runaway industrial growth. It is home to three of the four Special Economic Zones set up in 1980. They are Shenzhen (adjacent to Hong Kong), Zhuhai (next door to Macau) and Shantou. (The fourth is Xiamen in Fujian province.)

Despite the de facto denial of trade union rights (the All China Federation of Trade Unions is the sole umbrella body to champion workers’ interests: but it is more loyal to the state and to industry than to its members), Guangdong’s workers, including migrants from other provinces, have found ways of pressing their demands occasionally. The strikes starting in May at the Honda factory in Foshan, another of Guangdong’s industrial bases, received worldwide publicity and strong support within China. The workers won wage rises.

Guangdong’s proximity to freewheeling Hong Kong is another factor that might have influenced the authorities’ decision. Protest demonstrations are frequent in Hong Kong. Its press and television, avidly viewed in Guangdong, demonstrate that even in the absence of democracy (and Hong Kong is ruled by a technocratic team beholden to property tycoons and to Beijing), the public can raise its voice and sometimes win. In 2003, Hong Kongers pushed back an attempt at foisting a draconian national security law.

Whether or not the authorities in Guangdong or Beijing took into their calculations language-related issues in other parts of the world, we may never know. Attempts to foist the north Indian language, Hindi, in the mid-1960s, led to riots and deaths in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. New Delhi took a more nuanced approach subsequently and Indians have worked out a loose modus vivendi in which Hindi, English and local languages cohabit.

In Sri Lanka, across a narrow strait from Tamil Nadu, failure to do that and the imposition of Sinhala as the sole language, disregarding the Tamil minority’s aspirations, contributed greatly to a civil war that claimed tens of thousands of lives. The Tamils have been defeated and their resentment remains. Islamabad’s imperviousness to the Bengali-speaking East Pakistanis’ pride in their language fuelled rebellion and led to the birth of independent Bangladesh.

China’s own troubles in Tibet and Xinjiang also have their language-related elements. Tibetans, using an Indic script for their Tibeto Burman language and the Uygurs of Xinjiang speaking and writing a Turkic language, have a hard time figuring out Putonghua. And after Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists lost to the Communists and fled to Taiwan in 1949, they imposed Putonghua on the Taiwanese who have their own dialects and languages. After nearly two decades of democracy, native Taiwanese have been increasingly affirming their desire to use their own tongues.

Guangdong’s people acted effectively in ways that speakers of other dialects such as Shanghainese or Sichuanese cannot, given that they lack the clout Cantonese speakers have gained due to their affluence and proximity to Hong Kong. Moreover, they nipped in the bud an attempt with a spurious link to the fortnight-long Asian Games festivities in November. Had they failed, it might have dealt a more insidious and permanent blow to the assertion of language rights in at least in one corner of China and to the celebration of diversity within that vast state which is made up of so many nationalities.

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