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



In many countries, cursing government online is so common that no one turns a blind eye. But it is not such an easy task on the heavily censored internet in China.

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, sparking yet another lockdown measures. .

“We had to close in April and then again in November,” one resident posted Monday on Weibo, China’s limited version of Twitter, before peppering the post with profanity with references to officials’ mothers. “The government has not provided any subsidies – do you think my rent does not cost money?”

Other users left messages with directions loosely translated to “go to hell”, while some accused authorities of “spouting nonsense” – albeit in less polite terms.

Such colorful posts are notable not only because they represent the growing public frustration with China’s relentless zero-covid policy — which uses rapid lockdowns, mass testing, extensive contact tracing and quarantines to eradicate infections as they occur — but because they do not remain visible at all.

Normally, such harsh criticism of government policy would be quickly removed by the army of government censors, but these posts have been left untouched for days. And that’s most likely because they’re written in language few censors will fully understand.

These messages are in Cantonese, which originated in the surrounding Guangdong province of Guangzhou and is spoken by tens of millions of people in southern China. It can be difficult to decipher by speakers of Mandarin – the official language of China and the language preferred by the government – especially in the written and often complex slang forms.

And this seems to be just the latest example of how Chinese people are turning to Cantonese — an irreverent language that offers rich opportunities for satire — to express displeasure at their government without drawing the attention of the all-seeing censors.

People wearing face masks wait in line for Covid-19 testing in Beijing, China, on Nov. 10.

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

“Perhaps because Weibo’s content censorship system has trouble recognizing the spelling of Cantonese characters, many messages in snappy, bold, and plain language still survive. But if the same content is written in Mandarin, it’s likely to be blocked or removed,” says the organization affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley.

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

Now the Cantonese seem to be offering those fed up with China’s ongoing zero-Covid lockdowns 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 prompted its critics to “innovate” in their communications.

“It appears that using non-Mandarin forms of communication could allow dissenters to bypass online censorship, at least for some time,” Dupré said.

“This phenomenon is a testament to the regime’s lack of confidence and growing paranoia, and to the citizens’ continued eagerness to resist despite the risks and hurdles.”

Although Cantonese shares much of its vocabulary and writing system with Mandarin, many of its slang terms, expletives, and everyday expressions have no Mandarin equivalent. The written form is also sometimes based on rarely used and archaic 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 very informal, often informal, and lends itself easily to puns, making it well-suited for barbs imagining and swinging.

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 characteristics of Cantonese came into sharp focus.

“Cantonese was, of course, a major carrier of political grievances during the 2019 protests,” Dupré said, adding that the language “gave a strong local touch 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 “freedom” with a popular profanity.

Other plays with written characters illustrate the endless creativity of Cantonese, such as a stylized version of ‘Hong Kong’ which, when read sideways, becomes ‘add oil’ – a rallying cry in the protests.

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

For example, because spoken Cantonese sounds different from spoken Mandarin, some people have experimented with romanizing Cantonese — spelling the sounds using the English alphabet — making it virtually impossible for a non-native speaker to understand.

Protesters at a rally against a proposed extradition bill in Hong Kong on May 4, 2019.

And while protests have subsided after the Chinese government passed a sweeping national security law in 2020, Cantonese continues to provide city residents with an opportunity to express their unique local identities – something people have long feared losing as the city moves further. under the influence of Beijing. grip.

To some, the use of Cantonese to criticize the government seems particularly appropriate, as the central government has aggressively pushed for the use of Mandarin throughout education and everyday life – for example in television broadcasting and other media – often at the expense of regional languages ​​and dialects.

These efforts sparked national controversy in 2010, when government officials suggested making more Mandarin programs on the mainly Cantonese television channel in Guangzhou.

It’s not just the Cantonese who have been affected – many ethnic minorities have raised the alarm that the decline of their native languages ​​could end cultures and ways of life they believe are already under threat.

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

Similar fears have long existed in Hong Kong – and grew in the 2010s as more Mandarin-speaking mainlanders started living and working in the city.

“A growing number of Mandarin-speaking school children are enrolled in schools in Hong Kong and are seen daily between Shenzhen and Hong Kong,” Dupré said. “Through these encounters, the language shift that was underway in Guangdong became very visible to Hong Kong people.”

He added that these concerns were compounded 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 claimed it was a “dialect”. “language” should be called. ” instead of.

Over the past decade, schools across Hong Kong have been encouraged by the government to switch to using Mandarin in Chinese lessons, while others have moved towards teaching simplified characters — the preferred written form in the mainland — in instead of the traditional characters used in Hong Kong.

There was even more outrage in 2019 when the city’s head of education suggested that the continued use of Cantonese over Mandarin in the city’s schools could mean Hong Kong would lose its competitive advantage in the future.

“Given Hong Kong’s rapid economic and political integration, it should come as no surprise that Hong Kong’s language regime is brought into line with that of the mainland, especially when it comes to promoting Mandarin,” Dupré said.

It’s not the first time people on the mainland have found ways to get around the censorship. Many use emojis to represent taboo phrases, English abbreviations that represent Mandarin phrases, and images such as cartoons and digitally edited photos, which are more difficult for censors to control.

But these methods naturally have their limitations. In contrast, Cantonese offers the weary residents of Guangzhou an endless linguistic landscape with which to cheat their leaders.

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

A delivery man delivers a package at the entrance of a closed-off neighborhood in Liwan, Guangzhou, on Nov. 9.

But for now, many Weibo users have embraced the rare opportunity to express their frustration at China’s zero-covid policy, which has affected the country’s economy, isolated it from the rest of the world and disrupted people’s daily lives. with the constant threat of lockdowns and unemployment.

“Hope everyone can hold out their anger,” wrote one Weibo user, noting that most of the messages regarding the lockdowns in Guangzhou were in Cantonese.

“Watch Cantonese people berate (authorities) on Weibo without getting caught,” posted another, featuring characters meaning laughter.

“Learn Cantonese well and cross Weibo without fear.”

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voice
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.


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