Why Cantonese threatens Beijing's language of power

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 July, 2010, 12:00am

Why are authoritarian regimes so obsessed with the suppression of local languages, or dialects, as they generally prefer to describe them? The Soviet Union was ruthless in trying to obliterate the many languages that existed within its borders, Fascist Spain criminalised the use of the nation's minority languages and China has demonstrated an equal determination to curb or even destroy the linguistic diversity that exists in the nation. In Guangdong, home of Cantonese, the language battle is accelerating.

The most recent spark was over a proposal to switch from Cantonese to Putonghua in Guangdong television broadcasts, but the underlying issue has been there for much longer and is more profound. Cantonese, like Shanghainese and the non-Chinese-based languages of the Uygurs and Tibetans, has not been submerged by the national language.

Although Cantonese is described as a dialect, many linguists say it is a language. But this view is contentious, although it is hard to deny that it is a much older tongue than the northern-based Mandarin and could well have become the national language after the foundation of the People's Republic.

Like other languages, Cantonese provides an identity for the society it serves. It reinforces the regional differences and is attached to a rich cultural history that cannot simply be expunged by edict. Moreover, because of the intense tradition of emigration from the south of the country, Cantonese has become the effective lingua franca of much of the Chinese diaspora and has developed a life of its own outside China.

Back in Guangdong, and here in Hong Kong, Cantonese speakers have demonstrated an intriguing ability to seamlessly incorporate foreign words, particularly English ones, into the lexicon and proved more than adept at creative use of the language by employing puns and synonyms that makes Cantonese quite distinctive and worth treasuring not only for historical reasons.

And, of course, Cantonese enhances a sense of identity. It is this that scares the rulers in Beijing; officials across the border are already accusing the defenders of Cantonese of having 'ulterior motives'.

Authoritarian governments have great difficulty with diversity; they see it as undermining their authority and sowing the seeds of discontent. Even quite innocent manifestations of local pride and regional identification are frowned upon unless officially instigated and approved.

Beijing will tolerate picture-postcard manifestations of diversity, such as encouraging minority group members of the National People's Congress to dress up in local costumes. But the leaders in Zhongnanhai shy away from anything that involves what might be described as intellectual activity. Language lies at the heart of such activity because without language there can be no thought; once thought runs free, or at least more freely, the consequences are unpredictable.

Thus, in schools, every effort is made to denigrate and downplay local languages. Officials, like the born-again patriots who run Hong Kong, strive to demonstrate their proficiency in the national language, wearing it as a badge of loyalty. And there has been a constant battle against the development of local languages in literature and the mass media.

Anyone challenging this process is quickly labelled a 'splittist' in the wonderful language of Maoism. This is a serious charge and is thrown about indiscriminately at both those who genuinely desire to split from Beijing, such as Tibetans, and at others who are happy to be in the Chinese state but seek a stronger sense of local identity.

In other nations, especially the United States, the state is quite relaxed about the double-barrelled affiliation of its citizens. People commonly talk of themselves as proud African-Americans, Irish-Americans or indeed Chinese-Americans.

One of the great achievements of post-apartheid South Africa was the emphasis on creating a 'rainbow nation', where all races and nations had a place. The new state's leaders assiduously courted the Afrikaners, who had lost the most as the old state crumbled, to assure them that they also belonged in the reformed nation. Remarkably, this has sort of worked.

Meanwhile, in China, there is a sullen suspicion of anyone showing the smallest sign of asserting anything other than officially approved forms of identification with the state. This makes the nation infinitely poorer, not more united.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur