Guangzhou lockdown: Chinese criticize zero-Covid – in language censors don’t seem to understand
In many countries, swearing against the government online is so commonplace that no one takes a stab at it. But it’s not such an easy task on China’s heavily censored internet.
That doesn’t seem to have stopped Guangzhou residents from venting their frustration after their city – a global manufacturing powerhouse home to 19 million people – became the epicenter of a nationwide Covid outbreak, again prompting lockdown measures. .
“We had to close in April and then again in November,” a resident said on Weibo, China’s restricted version of Twitter, on Monday, before peppering the post with profanity that included references to officials’ mothers. “Government didn’t provide subsidies – do you think my rent doesn’t cost money?”
Other users left messages with instructions that loosely translate to “go to hell”, while some accused the authorities of “talking nonsense” – albeit in less polite wording.
These colorful posts are notable not only because they represent growing public frustration with China’s relentless zero Covid policy – which uses instant lockdowns, mass testing, extensive contact tracing and quarantines to eradicate infections as soon as they appear – but because they remain visible at all.
Normally, such harsh criticism of government policies would be quickly suppressed by the government’s army of censors, but these posts remained untouched for days. And that’s probably because they’re written in language that few censors will fully understand.
These messages are in Cantonese, native to Guangdong Province, Guangzhou, and spoken by tens of millions of people in southern China. It can be difficult to decipher by speakers of Mandarin – China’s official language and one favored by the government – especially in its written and often complex slang forms.
And it seems to be just the latest example of how the Chinese are turning to Cantonese – an irreverent language that offers rich opportunities for satire – to express their displeasure with their government without attracting the attention of all-seeing censors. .
In September this year, the US-based independent media watchdog China Digital Times noted that many disgruntled Cantonese posts were passing censors in response to mass Covid testing requirements in Guangdong.
“Maybe because Weibo’s content censorship system has trouble recognizing the spelling of Cantonese characters, many posts in spicy, bold, and simple language still survive. But if the same content is written in Mandarin, it is subject to blocking or removal,” said the organization, which is affiliated with the University of California at Berkeley.
In neighboring Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong, anti-government protesters in 2019 often used Cantonese puns both for protest slogans and to guard against possible surveillance by mainland Chinese authorities.
Now, Cantonese appears to offer those fed up with China’s continued zero-Covid lockdowns an avenue for more subtle displays of dissent.
Jean-François Dupré, an assistant professor of political science at TÉLUQ University who has studied Hong Kong’s language policy, said the Chinese government’s increasingly low tolerance for public criticism has pushed its critics to “innovate” in their communication.
“It appears that using non-Mandarin forms of communication could allow dissidents to escape online censorship, at least for a while,” Dupré said.
“This phenomenon speaks to the regime’s growing lack of trust and paranoia, and to the citizens’ continued readiness to resist despite the risks and obstacles.
Although Cantonese shares much of its vocabulary and writing system with Mandarin, many of its slang terms, swear words, and everyday expressions have no equivalent in Mandarin. Its written form also sometimes relies on rarely used and archaic characters, or characters that mean something entirely 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 puns, making it well suited for making up and throwing barbs.
When Hong Kong was rocked by anti-government protests in 2019 — fueled in part by fears that Beijing was encroaching on the city’s autonomy, freedoms and culture — these attributes of Cantonese became very clear.
“Cantonese was, of course, a major vehicle for political grievances during the 2019 protests,” Dupré said, adding that the language gave “a strong local flavor to the protests.”
He pointed out how entirely new typefaces sprang up spontaneously from the pro-democracy movement – including one that combined the characters of “freedom” with popular profanity.
Other games on written characters illustrate the endless creativity of Cantonese, such as a stylized version of “Hong Kong” which, when read from the side, becomes “add oil” – a rallying cry in demonstrations.
Protesters have also found ways to protect their communications, fearing that online chat groups – where they held rallies and railed against authorities – were being monitored by mainland agents.
For example, because spoken Cantonese sounds different from spoken Mandarin, some people have experimented with romanizing Cantonese—spelling sounds using the English alphabet—thus making it virtually impossible for a non-native speaker to understand.
And, while protests died down after the Chinese government imposed a sweeping national security law in 2020, Cantonese continues to offer residents of the city a way to express their unique local identity – something that people have long feared losing as the city is drawn more to Beijing. to input.
For some, using Cantonese to criticize the government seems particularly appropriate given that the central government has pushed for Mandarin to be used nationwide in education and daily life – for example, in television broadcasts and other media – often at the expense of regional languages and dialects. .
These efforts turned into national controversy in 2010, when government officials suggested increasing Mandarin programming on Guangzhou’s mostly Cantonese television station – outraged residents, who took part in rare mass rallies and in scuffles with the police.
It’s not just the Cantonese who are affected – many ethnic minorities have expressed concern that the decline of their native languages could spell the end of cultures and ways of life that they believe are already under threat.
In 2020, students and parents in Inner Mongolia staged mass school boycotts over a new policy that replaced the Mongolian language with Mandarin in elementary and middle schools.
Similar fears have long existed in Hong Kong – and grew in the 2010s as more Mandarin-speaking mainlanders began to live and work in the city.
“A growing number of Mandarin-speaking school children have been enrolled in Hong Kong schools and have been seen commuting between Shenzhen and Hong Kong on a daily basis,” Dupré said. “Thanks to these meetings, the language change that has taken place in Guangdong has become quite visible for Hong Kongers.”
He added that these concerns were exacerbated by local government policies that emphasized the role of Mandarin and referred to Cantonese as a “dialect” – infuriating some Hong Kongers who viewed the term as a snub and argued it should be called “language”. ” In place.
Over the past decade, schools in Hong Kong have been encouraged by the government to switch to using Mandarin in Chinese lessons, while others have switched to teaching simplified characters – the written form preferred on the mainland – instead of the traditional characters used in Hong Kong. .
There was further outrage in 2019 when the city’s education chief suggested that the continued use of Cantonese rather than Mandarin in city schools could mean Hong Kong would lose its competitive advantage in the coming.
“Given Hong Kong’s rapid economic and political integration, it would not be surprising to see Hong Kong’s language regime align with that of the mainland, especially with regard to the promotion of Mandarin,” said Dupre.
This is not the first time that people on the mainland have found ways to circumvent censors. Many use emojis to represent taboo phrases, English abbreviations that represent Mandarin phrases, and images like cartoons and digitally altered photos, which are harder for censors to monitor.
But these methods, by their very nature, have their limits. By contrast, for weary Guangzhou residents, Cantonese offers an endless linguistic landscape with which to castigate their rulers.
It’s unclear whether these more subversive uses of Cantonese will encourage greater solidarity among its speakers in southern China — or whether it might encourage the central government to further crack down on the use of local dialects, Dupré said.
For now though, many Weibo users have taken the rare opportunity to vent their frustration over China’s zero Covid policy, which has battered the country’s economy, isolated it from the rest of the world and disrupted the people’s daily lives with the constant threat of lockdowns and unemployment.
“I hope everyone can maintain their anger,” wrote one Weibo user, noting that most of the posts relating to the Guangzhou lockdowns were in Cantonese.
“Watching Cantonese scolding (authorities) on Weibo without getting caught,” posted another, using characters that mean laughing.
“Learn Cantonese well and browse Weibo without fear.”