Debate over the future of Cantonese in Guangdong and the perceived threat from Putonghua has intensified, with officials and influential figures saying that the local culture and dialect should be respected. Guangzhou residents are taking the initiative to protect their mother tongue, with a call for people to gather next Sunday and recite Cantonese - a subtle form of protest - winning widespread support. Against this background, top provincial leaders started a two-day meeting yesterday to discuss 'cultural development in Guangdong', a propaganda department official said. It's a development that underlines the significance of regional tensions on the mainland and anger at edicts from Beijing seen to undermine local culture. The official said the government would release a policy outline and new regulations afterwards to boost 'Cantonese cultural heritage'. The authorities also plan to hold a public forum, the official said, describing it as 'one of the hottest topics that have grabbed our leaders' attention'. The forum, also scheduled to take place next Sunday, will be organised jointly by the general office of the Guangdong government, the provincial Development and Reform Commission and the propaganda department. Scholars, teachers, students and businesspeople will all be invited to attend. 'Of course we will discuss how to protect Cantonese at the forum. This is such a hot topic recently,' the official said, and noted that even provincial party secretary Wang Yang had spoken out on the issue earlier this month. Wang was said to have pledged that 'we won't let Cantonese culture die in our generation'. The spark that set off the debate was a controversial proposal by Guangzhou's political advisory body this month that the provincial capital's main television channel switch programming from Cantonese to Putonghua to make the city a friendlier place for visitors from other provinces during the Asian Games in November. The idea touched a raw nerve with many residents, who already felt their culture and language was under threat from the central government's promotion of Putonghua and an influx of migrants from other provinces. Many people complain that Beijing's policy of mandating the use of Putonghua for all formal occasions as well as in schools has marginalised Cantonese - a major Chinese dialect with a long history. The advisory body proposed the switch even though more than 80 per cent of the 30,000 people who responded to its own survey said they were against the idea. It has sparked off heated debate throughout the province, with many Guangdong people calling for action to protect their mother tongue. They regard the proposal, together with other, similar policies, as an attempt to suppress local tradition and character. Guangdong people, although part of the Han Chinese family, are proud of their unique heritage and their long history of defiance of central authority. Many argue Cantonese is a more orthodox and traditional language than Putonghua - previously known as Mandarin - which is a mixture of the northern Chinese dialect, Manchurian and Mongolian. Prominent public figures have joined in the debate. Flu expert Dr Zhong Nanshan - the mainland's severe acute respiratory syndrome hero and a widely respected Guangdong native - said he strongly opposed the use of Putonghua to replace Cantonese. 'Cantonese is not just a kind of dialect. It also carries the [essence] of southern Chinese culture and our identity as Cantonese people,' he was quoted as saying by GZTV Evening News - the station's most popular programme - on Thursday. The move to 'protect Cantonese' has quickly turned into a unifying force for Guangdong people amid the identity crisis they face. A call by some internet users for Guangzhou residents to gather to defend their mother tongue spread fast and has been echoed widely in internet forums. Those behind the call asked people to take part in several 'cultural events' next Sunday. The first would be held near a subway station exit, with participants engaging in a mini-game to teach people Cantonese colloquial phrases and sayings. There would be a rally later to call for the preservation of Cantonese culture. As many as 20,000 people are said to have told the organisers they will attend. The organisers said they would seek approval for the rally from Guangzhou's Public Security Bureau. A bureau spokesman said it had not received any application yet.