Guangzhou lockdown: Chinese criticize zero-Covid – in a language censors don’t seem to understand

Hong Kong

In many countries, swearing at the government online is so common that no one bats an eye. But that’s not such an easy task on China’s heavily censored internet.

That doesn’t seem to have stopped Guangzhou residents from venting their frustrations after their city – a global manufacturing hub of 19 million people – became the epicenter of a nationwide Covid outbreak, prompting yet another lockdown.

“We had to lock down in April and then again in November,” one resident wrote on Weibo, China’s restricted version of Twitter, on Monday – before peppering the post with profanity that included references to officials’ mothers. “The government hasn’t given subsidies – don’t you think my rent costs money?”

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

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

Such colorful posts are remarkable not only because they represent growing public frustration with China’s unwavering zero-Covid policy – which uses snap lockdowns, mass testing, extensive contact tracing and quarantine to stamp out infections as they emerge – but because they be visible at all.

Normally, such harsh criticism of government policy would be quickly deleted by the government’s censorship forces, yet these posts have remained untouched for days. And that is most likely because they are written in a language that few censors fully understand.

These posts are in Cantonese, which originated in the surrounding Guangzhou province of Guangdong and is spoken by tens of millions of people across southern China. It can be difficult to decipher for Mandarin speakers – China’s official language and the one favored by the government – ​​especially in its written and often complex slang form.

And it appears to be just the latest example of how the Chinese are turning to Cantonese – an irreverent language that offers rich potential for satire – to express displeasure with their government without attracting the attention of the all-seeing censors.

People wearing face masks wait in line for Covid-19 tests in Beijing, China, 10 November.

In September of this year, the US-based independent media watchdog China Digital Times noticed a number of disgruntled Cantonese posts that slipped past the censors in response to a number of Covid testing requirements in Guangdong.

“Perhaps because Weibo’s content censorship system struggles to recognize the spelling of Cantonese characters, many posts in strong, bold and simple 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.

In nearby Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong, anti-government protesters in 2019 often used Cantonese puns both for protest slogans and to fend off potential surveillance by mainland Chinese authorities.

Now, Cantonese seems to be offering those fed up with China’s continuous zero-Covid lockdown an avenue 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 pushed its critics to be “innovative” in their communications.

“It appears that a non-Mandarin form of communication may allow dissidents to evade online censorship, at least for a while,” Dupré said.

“This phenomenon testifies to the mistrust of the government and the growing paranoia and the continued eagerness of the citizens to resist despite the risks and obstacles.”

Although Cantonese shares much of its vocabulary and writing system with Mandarin, many of its slang words, euphemisms and everyday expressions have no Mandarin equivalent. Its written form also sometimes relies on rarely used and archaic characters, or ones 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 lends itself easily to puns – making it well suited to inventing and throwing barbs.

When Hong Kong was rocked by anti-government protests in 2019 – in part out of fear that Beijing was encroaching on the city’s autonomy, freedom and culture – these qualities of Cantonese came into sharp focus.

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

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

Other plays about written characters show the endless creativity of Cantonese, such as a stylized version of “Hong Kong” which, when read sideways, must be “add oil” – a rallying cry.

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

For example, because spoken Cantonese sounds different from spoken Mandarin, some attempted to romanize Cantonese—spelling the sounds using the English alphabet—so that it was almost impossible for non-native speakers to understand.

Protesters rally against proposed extradition laws in Hong Kong on May 4, 2019.

And while the protests died down after the Chinese government enacted sweeping national security laws in 2020, Cantonese continues to offer the city’s residents a way to express their unique local identity — something people have long feared losing as the city is drawn further under Beijing. flu.

For some, using Cantonese to criticize the government seems particularly appropriate given the central government’s push for Mandarin to be used nationwide in education and everyday life – for example in television broadcasts and other media – often at the expense of regional languages ​​and dialects.

That effort turned into a national row in 2010, when officials proposed increasing the number of Mandarin programs on Guangzhou’s predominantly Cantonese television station — outraged residents, who engaged in rare street rallies and clashes with police.

It’s not just Cantonese that’s affected – many ethnic minorities have said the decline of their mother tongue could spell the end of a culture and way of life they say is 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 increased in the 2010s when 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 daily between Shenzhen and Hong Kong,” said Dupré. “Through this encounter, the language change that has been going on in Guangdong became quite visible to Hong Kong people.”

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 saw the term as offensive and argued that it should be banished to what “language”. ” in stead.

Over the past decade, schools across Hong Kong have been encouraged by the government to switch to using Mandarin in teaching Chinese, while others have switched to teaching simplified characters – the written form of choice on the mainland – instead of the traditional characters that are used in Hong Kong.

There was further furor in 2019 when the city’s education director suggested that the continued use of Cantonese over Mandarin in the city’s schools could mean Hong Kong would lose its competitive edge in the future.

“Given Hong Kong’s rapid economic and political integration, it would not be surprising to see Hong Kong’s language regime brought into line with that of the mainland, particularly in terms of promoting 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 images, which are harder for censors to track.

But these methods have their inherent limitations. On the other hand, for the jaded residents of Guangzhou, Cantonese offers an endless linguistic landscape from which to stir their leaders.

It’s not clear whether this more subversive use of Cantonese will encourage greater solidarity among its speakers in southern China — or whether it could encourage the central government to further clamp down on the use of local dialects, Dupré said.

A courier delivers a package to the entrance of a locked district in Liwan, Guangzhou, on November 9.

For now, though, many Weibo users have taken the rare opportunity to express frustration with China’s zero-Covid policy, which has battered the country’s economy, isolated it from the outside world and disrupted people’s daily lives with the constant threat of lockdowns and shutdowns. unemployment

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

“Watching Cantonese people scold (the authorities) on Weibo without getting caught,” wrote another, using characters representing laughter.

“Learn Cantonese well and cross Weibo without fear.”

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