China: Thousands join protests for Cantonese language

Protests have broken out in Guangzhou and Hong Kong over a proposal from Guangzhou-based official Ji Kekuang that Guangdong Television stop its news coverage in Cantonese and go over to Putonghua (Mandarin), China’s official language.

Ironically, Ji’s suggestion was intended to ”promote harmony”. This has triggered protests mainly from students and youth, including around 500 demonstrators in Hong Kong on 1 August and a similar number in Guangzhou at the same time. Socialist Action (cwi in Hong Kong) took part in the Hong Kong demonstration in support of the rights of Cantonese and all other language groups, against discrimination and censorship. An abridged version of this article was produced as a leaflet, and a cwi supporter addressed the demonstration.

The overwhelmingly youthful protest at a Guangzhou metro station on Sunday 25 July has generated widespread publicity and debate in China, with a spillover effect among Hong Kong youth. Under the slogan “Support Cantonese” over one thousand people, up to 10,000 according to some newspaper reports, staged an illegal protest against a suggestion by city politicians to cut back on the use of Cantonese on the city’s main TV station.

With around 70 million speakers Cantonese is the third most widely used dialect in China and the mother tongue in Guangdong province and eastern Guangxi, as well as Hong Kong and Macau. Denying any plans to downgrade the use of Cantonese, the government of Guangzhou, provincial capital of Guangdong, stresses the proposal that surfaced last month at the city’s CPPCC (consultative parliament) was a simple suggestion, not an administrative order. “The city government has never had such a plan to abandon or weaken Cantonese,” said Su Zhijia, a deputy secretary of the city’s Communist Party. A CPPCC delegate had proposed switching programming on two main channels of Guangzhou TV from Cantonese to Putonghua (Mandarin), to encourage and facilitate tourism from other provinces during the Asian Games, which Guangzhou will host in November. There are already several TV channels in the province that broadcast in Putonghua.

That this issue has seemingly triggered such a backlash from a layer of youth in particular underlines the deep gulf of suspicion and hostility separating the officialdom of the Chinese regime from the population at large. As opposition to the Chinese regime rises as a result of its dictatorial methods and rapacious economic policies that invariably ride roughshod over local communities, some of this opposition inevitably takes on a nationalist or regionalist aspect. Socialists and advocates of building a labour movement need to address such trends and conflicts, putting forward policies and a method of struggle that can unite the working class and the oppressed layers of all ethnic or linguistic groups in common struggle.

The Chinese regime sees the spread of Putonghua, which it promotes by administrative and economic measures, as a means to cement its control over the territory of the Chinese state including in vast regions where minority languages and ethnic groups predominate. The regime increasingly uses nationalism to shore up its wobbly social base, an approach that includes denouncing demands for greater religious or cultural freedom in mostly-Muslim Xinjiang, to take just one example, as ‘separatism’ and ‘terrorism’. Beijing displays a haughtiness and inflexibility in this sphere that inevitably stokes tensions and breeds discrimination.

Language issues and the rights of national and cultural minorities therefore represent a political and social minefield. This is because the national question is far from resolved in China. Beijing’s often crude “one-policy-fits-all” approach, pursued through dictatorial and militaristic methods, only serves to aggravate tensions and activate new ‘land mines’ that can explode in the coming years. This is the reality, based on the monstrous social contradictions created by the Chinese elite, however superficially logical it may seem to adopt one common language for the benefit of economic interaction and national administration. Such things can only be achieved voluntarily, by consent not by coercion, something that is impossible under a dictatorial regime.

To the youth who took the streets of Guangzhou, the ideas of the ruling elite on the public use of Cantonese appear as an attack upon their position. The status of Cantonese is only one element in a much bigger mix, which includes rising youth unemployment, economic insecurity and a housing nightmare. Prestige projects such as the Asian Games, like the Olympics in Beijing, are increasingly unpopular as they are seen as ‘propaganda’ events for the one-party state, while also showering business contracts on super-rich developers but give very little to ordinary residents. Alongside a dramatic rise in social tensions throughout China symbolised by the widening wealth gap, there is the all-pervasive ‘Big Brother’ state apparatus bearing down especially on the young. State repression and censorship have visibly worsened in the last 2-3 years. This, rather than the abstract ‘identity crisis’ talked about by numerous sociological commentators in recent days, explains the outpouring of youthful protest at the present time, although this trend is not conscious or clearly defined.

The ‘Support Cantonese’ movement, which is now set to spread to Hong Kong with a solidarity march organised on 1 August, is therefore at root a backlash against a bureaucratic and undemocratic system of government. But while there are progressive and anti-authoritarian tendencies present in these protests, the overall picture is not so clear-cut. There are also reactionary moods and ideas that pose a potential danger of increasing racism within society as a whole. Inevitably, with competition for jobs increasing among graduates, there is a growth of ideas such as ‘local jobs for local people’ directed against migrants from outside Guangdong. Especially in a totalitarian state in which mass organisation and open debate are banned, a mix of confused ideas tends to be dredged to the surface by every new social eruption.

Chauvinist elements are trying to surf on this wave. Postings on internet sites such as Facebook include slogans such as “Cantonese should speak Cantonese, if you cannot understand, go back to your countryside”. Some internet postings have even suggested that Putonghua should be banned during the next demonstration in Guangzhou (to be held simultaneously with the Hong Kong protest). Migrants, whose labour has helped propel Guangdong into first place economically, generally speak Putonghua even if this is not the mother tongue in their home provinces, and therefore such statements (to ‘ban’ Putonghua) amount to an attack on the position of migrants. Socialists oppose discrimination against the use of Cantonese, but equally oppose discrimination against non-Cantonese speakers.

Racist or chauvinist statements and ideas divide working people and play directly into the hands of the Chinese authorities, allowing them to brand the young Cantonese protesters as reactionary and portray themselves as the guardians of “unity”. But many of the protesters have clearly distanced themselves from such statements. The government-run Global Times quoted one Guangzhou demonstrator saying, “I stand for multiculturalism, and I strongly oppose the government’s plan to promote Putonghua with administrative means.” Likewise, one organiser of the Hong Kong protest has drawn attention to the fact that Cantonese was treated as a “second-class language” when Britain ruled Hong Kong and that the Beijing’s language policies were similarly a “a form of suppression of the rights of minorities”. The fight for equal rights is completely justified, while attempts to scapegoat immigrants are reactionary and undermine the possibilities of united mass struggle to defeat the dictatorship.

Socialists uphold the equal rights of all linguistic groups and oppose discrimination on grounds of language, nationality or religious beliefs. We do not stand for the promotion of one language or culture at the expense of another. In the context of the current dispute this means that we are not in the camp of any language, but fight for the rights of all linguistic groups and oppose censorship and discrimination. We defend the rights of Cantonese speakers and call for the same rights to be given to non-Cantonese speakers in China and in Hong Kong. We call for free adult tuition in both Putonghua and Cantonese for those who wish to learn these languages. Socialists completely oppose those voices in the current protest movement that advocate a form of Cantonese cultural domination at the expense of minorities including those who speak Putonghua. The rights of Guangdong’s linguistic minorities such as the Hakka and Chaozhou have long been violated by the province’s Cantonese speaking elite.

These problems are not confined to the sphere of language and culture but relate to economic discrimination and oppression. Socialists oppose the systemic discrimination of non-Chinese migrants in Hong Kong and call for equal rights in terms of employment, residence and the new minimum wage legislation. Likewise, we call for equal rights for the 20 million migrant workers from other Chinese provinces living in Guangdong, including the scrapping of the discriminatory hukou (residence) system and for equal access to health care, education and housing, by investing in public services under democratic control instead of property speculation and wasteful prestige projects.

Without a joint struggle against the system of privilege by all workers and youth regardless of background it will be impossible to eradicate Guangdong’s world famous labour abuses, to win a decent minimum wage, or to end the housing crisis. The strikes led by migrant workers in Guangdong’s factories in recent weeks are a brilliant example of working class unity in action. These struggles have shaken the regime, won significant cash improvements, and also united in action youth from a multitude of regional and linguistic backgrounds.

Genuine socialism – not its Stalinist-Maoist caricature – stands for the fullest extension of democratic rights. We fight against repression and state censorship, for freedom of assembly, political association and the right to strike. We defend the national and cultural rights of all China’s minorities including the right to use their own language in dealings with the state, equal status for minority languages in the school system and an end to all discrimination in respect of jobs, housing and public services. To realise such demands a strong workers’ movement is needed, that can fight the elites who use racism and nationalism in order to ‘divide and rule’. This requires the construction of independent and fully democratic trade unions, and a mass struggle to end one-party rule.

• To fight the dictatorship all voices are needed!

• For cultural and linguistic freedom, no censorship, no discrimination!

• For a massive expansion of free language education to provide Cantonese and Putonghua classes to those who wish to learn!

• Fight for democratic rights – scrap Hong Kong’s functional constituencies – replace Legco with a genuine People’s Assembly elected by universal suffrage with the power to smash the tycoons’ economic stranglehold, reverse privatisation, and boost public services!

• For common struggle by Cantonese and migrants against the rotten system and capitalism – for jobs, a decent minimum wage, and housing as a basic right!

• For international socialism and solidarity!

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August 2010