Guangzhou lockdown: Chinese are criticizing zero-Covid — in language censors don’t seem to understand

Hong Kong

In many countries, online cursing of the government is so common that no one expects it. But it’s not such an 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 powerhouse of 19 million people – became the epicenter of a national Covid outbreak, prompting renewed lockdown measures.

“We had to lock down in April, and then again in November,” one resident posted on Weibo, China’s restricted version of Twitter, on Monday – before interrupting the post with lies that included references to officers’ mothers. “The government didn’t provide subsidies – do you think my rent doesn’t cost money?”

Other users left posts with instructions that loosely translate to “go to hell,” and some accused the authorities of “spouting nonsense” – albeit less politely.

Workers dressed in white prepare to evacuate residents, wearing blue protective suits, at a village in Guangzhou after the Covid outbreak on November 5.

Such colorful posts are striking not only because they reflect growing public frustration with China’s relentless zero-Covid policy – which uses snap lockdowns, mass testing, extensive contact tracing and quarantine to wipe out infections as soon as they arrive advanced – but because they remain visible at all.

Normally the government’s army of censors would be quick to issue such harsh criticism of government policies, but these posts have been untouched for days. And that is, probably, because they are written in a language that few censors will fully understand.

These posts are in Cantonese, which originated in the Guangdong province surrounding Guangzhou and is spoken by thousands of people throughout Southern China. It can be difficult for speakers of Mandarin – China’s official language and the government’s preferred language – to decipher, especially in its written and often complex slang forms.

And this appears to be just the latest example of how the Chinese people are turning to Cantonese – an irreverent language that offers rich possibilities for satire – to express displeasure with their government without attracting the attention of the ubiquitous censors.

People in face masks wait to arrive for Covid-19 tests in Beijing, China, on November 10.

In September of this year, the US-based independent media monitoring organization China Digital Times noted that many disgruntled Cantonese posts were slipping past the censors in response to mass Covid testing requirements in Guangdong.

“Perhaps because Weibo’s content censorship system has difficulty recognizing the spelling of Cantonese characters, many posts in spicy, bold and direct language still survive. But if the same content is written in Mandarin, it is likely to be blocked or deleted,” said the organization, which is affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley.

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In nearby Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong, anti-government demonstrators in 2019 often used Cantonese verbiage for protest slogans and to defend against possible surveillance by mainland Chinese authorities.

Now, Cantonese appears to be offering those exasperated by China’s ongoing zero-Covid lockdown a way for more subtle displays of dissent.

Jean-François Dupré, an assistant professor of political science at Université TÉLUQ who has studied Hong Kong’s language politics, said the Chinese government’s declining tolerance for public criticism has forced its critics to “innovate” in their communications. .

“It appears that dissidents may be able to evade online censorship, at least for a while, by using non-Mandarin forms of communication,” Dupré said.

“This phenomenon is testimony to the regime’s lack of confidence and growing paranoia, and to the continued enthusiasm of citizens to resist them despite the risks and obstacles.”

Although Cantonese shares much of its vocabulary and writing system with Mandarin, many of its slang terms, expletives and everyday phrases have no Mandarin equivalent. The written form also sometimes relies on archaic and rarely used 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 highly colloquial, often informal, and prone to wordplay – making it well suited to inventing and slinging barbs.

When Hong Kong was hit by anti-government protests in 2019 – fueled by fears that Beijing was encroaching on the city’s independence, freedoms and culture – these Cantonese characteristics came into sharp focus.

“Cantonese was, of course, an important topic of political grievances during the 2019 protests,” said Dupré, adding that the language “gave a strong local flavor to the protests”.

He pointed out how entirely new written characters were born spontaneously from the pro-democracy movement – including one that combined the characters for “liberty” with popular recognition.

Other plays on written characters show the endless creativity of Cantonese, such as a stylized version of “Hong Kong” which, when read backwards, becomes “add oil” – a rallying cry in protest.

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Protesters also found ways to protect their communications, wary that online chat groups – where they organized rallies and rallies against the authorities – were being monitored by agents on the mainland.

For example, because the sounds of spoken Cantonese are different from spoken Mandarin, some people have tried to romanize Cantonese – spelling the sounds using the English alphabet – making it almost impossible for a non-native speaker to understand .

A protester at a rally against a proposed extradition law in Hong Kong on May 4, 2019.

And, although the protests died down after the Chinese government imposed a sweeping national security law in 2020, Cantonese continues to offer the city’s residents a way to express their unique local identity – something people feared for long to be lost as the city is drawn further under Beijing’s rule. bite

For some, it seems that Cantonese is being used to criticize the government especially as the central government has pushed hard for Mandarin to be used throughout the country in education and life everyday – for example, in television broadcasts and other media – often at the expense of regional languages ​​and dialects. .

These efforts became a national controversy in 2010, when government officials proposed increasing Mandarin programs on the mainly Cantonese TV channel Guangzhou – alarming residents, who took part in sporadic street rallies and scuffles with police.

It’s not just the Cantonese – many ethnic minorities have feared that the decline of their native languages ​​could wipe out cultures and ways of life they say are already under threat.

In 2020, students and parents in Central Mongolia staged school boycotts over a new policy that replaced the Mongolian language with Mandarin in primary and secondary schools.

Similar fears have existed for a long time in Hong Kong – and they grew in the 2010s as more mainland Mandarin speakers began to settle and work in the city.

“An increasing number of Mandarin-speaking school children are enrolled in Hong Kong schools and have been seen commuting between Shenzhen and Hong Kong on a daily basis,” said Dupré. “Through these contacts, the language change that is operating in Guangdong was clearly visible to the people of Hong Kong.”

He added that these concerns were exacerbated by local government policies that emphasized the role of Mandarin, and referred to Cantonese as a “dialect” – angering some Hong Kongers who viewed the term as a snub and who argued that it should be referred to as “language”. ” instead.

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Over the past decade, the government has encouraged schools across Hong Kong to switch to using Mandarin in Chinese lessons, while others have switched to teaching simplified characters – the preferred written form in the mainland – instead of the traditional characters used in Hong Kong. Cong. .

There was further outrage in 2019 when the city’s education chief suggested that the continued use of Cantonese rather than Mandarin in the city’s schools would mean Hong Kong would lose its competitive edge in the future.

“Given Hong Kong’s rapid economic and political integration, it is not surprising to bring Hong Kong’s language regime into line with that of the mainland, particularly in the promotion of Mandarin,” said Dupré.

This is not the first time that people on the mainland have found ways around the censors. Many use emojis to represent taboo phrases, English abbreviations representing Mandarin phrases, and images such as cartoons and digitally altered photographs, which are harder for censors to monitor.

But these methods, by their very nature, have their limits. In contrast, for the well-to-do residents of Guangzhou, Cantonese offers a limitless linguistic landscape with which to lambast their leaders.

It is unclear whether the more subversive uses of Cantonese will encourage more solidarity between its speakers in Southern China – or whether it could encourage the central government to further crack down on the use of local dialects, Dupré said.

A delivery worker delivers a package to a locked neighborhood entrance in Liwan, Guangzhou, on November 9.

In recent times, however, many Weibo users have taken the rare opportunity to express frustration with China’s zero-Covid policy, which has crippled the country’s economy, isolated it from the rest of the world, and affecting people’s daily lives with the constant threat of lockouts and unemployment.

“I hope everyone can contain their anger,” wrote one Weibo user, noting that most of the posts related to the Guangzhou lockdown were in Cantonese.

“Watching Cantonese people scolding (authorities) on Weibo without getting caught,” posted another, using smiley characters.

“Learn Cantonese well, and cross Weibo without fear.”


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