Cantonese in China protest over language loss fears

BEIJING (Reuters) - Hundreds of people took to the streets of the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou over the weekend to demand the government halt efforts to push aside the local Cantonese language, state media said on Monday.

The protest on Sunday was prompted by plans to switch most programing on Guangzhou television stations to the country’s official language, Mandarin, feeding fears that the government wants to phase out Cantonese in official settings, reports said.

Some newspapers in Hong Kong, where Cantonese remains the main language of government, education and the man in the street, said demonstrators numbered more than 10,000, with participants singing and giving impassioned speeches in Cantonese.

The Global Times, a popular Chinese tabloid run by Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, said the protest was peaceful and dispersed after a few hours.

“I stand for multiculturalism, and I strongly oppose the government’s plan to promote Putonghua with administrative means,” the report quoted one demonstrator as saying, referring to another name for the Mandarin Chinese language.

Beijing has promoted Mandarin for decades to unite a nation with thousands of dialects and numerous minority languages.

Cantonese is still widely spoken in the booming southern province of Guangdong, thanks in part to the spillover influence of Hong Kong’s wildly successful and racy vernacular pop culture, but some people fear for its future.

An influx of outsiders seeking work in China’s coastal export hubs has added to the onslaught on local languages.

Chinese newspapers and Internet sites have reported on companies where employees are fined for speaking Cantonese at work, prompting anger.

“I support Cantonese. If we don’t speak it, we are shaming our ancestors,” wrote “Bright Star” on the popular Chinese internet portal

The Guangzhou authorities strongly deny wanting to marginalize Cantonese.

“The city government has never had such a plan to abandon or weaken Cantonese,” the Global Times quoted Su Zhijia, one of Guangzhou’s Communist Party deputy bosses, as saying.

The controversy has prompted the People’s Daily itself to wade in. In an editorial last week, the newspaper stressed the importance of Mandarin, but also of respecting dialects.

“We have to find a balance,” it said.

Reporting by Beijing and Hong Kong newsrooms; Writing by Ben Blanchard, Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Ron Popeski