China's internet censors have a blindspot: Cantonese

Weibo posts using Cantonese slang to criticize the government's covid measures seem to have evaded censorship—for now.
China's internet censors have a blindspot: Cantonese
Photo: Stringer (Reuters)
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Thanks to Beijing’s sprawling internet censorship apparatus, content critical of the Chinese government rarely survives on the internet for long. As a result, users have become adept at using code like “Martian” language, emojis, and braille to evade censors.

Sometimes, however, even everyday language is enough to confound online censorship mechanisms.

Trained in Mandarin, stumped by Cantonese?

In the southern city of Guangzhou—where officials have imposed strict lockdowns in several residential areas and stepped up restrictions for schools and restaurants—citizens have taken to the Chinese social media site Weibo to vent their frustrations.

Remarkably, numerous angry posts directed at authorities, replete with expletives and references to genitalia, have remained accessible online for days, according to China Digital Times (link in Chinese).

Several posts lambasted the inconveniences of having to obtain PCR tests within 24 hours just to travel between city districts.

“I did a PCR test at 10pm last night, and only got results this afternoon. Fuck, based on these policies, there’s no way to go out if an emergency arises. The stupid fucks are really messing the fuck around,” wrote one user, using three different Cantonese expletives that all roughly translate to “fuck.” Another user said local officials should resign and cursed their mothers.

One possible reason that censors didn’t expunge these posts is that they are written in the Cantonese vernacular, not the standard Mandarin that is the official language of China.

“Perhaps because Weibo’s content censorship system has difficulty recognizing the way Cantonese words are written and spelled, many relevant postings with spicy, bold and blunt language still survive,” noted China Digital Times, a bilingual news site affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley. “However, if the same content is written out in Mandarin, it is likely to be blocked or deleted.”

A language of resistance

Cantonese is a language spoken by upwards of a hundred million people across southeast China, Hong Kong, and many other parts of the world, including Southeast Asia and North America. For example, Cantonese is estimated to be spoken by 60% of the Chinese-speaking population in the US Bay Area.

Officially, Beijing designates Cantonese as a dialect. But scholars including Gina Anne Tam of Trinity University have long argued that Cantonese is a language in its own right, and that state efforts to relegate it as a dialect is less about linguistics than an effort to define and monopolize a singular national identity while destroying others.

During the 2019 Hong Kong protests, for example, the versatility of Cantonese helped formulate a creative repertoire of protest slang that united protesters, distilled their frustrations , and exposed the hypocrisies of the government.

It’s this ability of “unofficial” lingua franca to cultivate a powerful and unique sense of shared identity, distinct from and at odds with the state-sanctioned national identity pushed by Beijing, that makes languages like Cantonese potentially threatening to authoritarian governments.

As one Weibo commenter noted, in envy of the ability of Guangzhou’s citizens to (relatively) freely express their discontent over covid controls: “Every place has to protect its own language, lest it be censored when it wants to speak out.”