World News

Pro-Cantonese protesters scuffle with China police

BEIJING (Reuters) - Hundreds in China’s southern export hub of Guangdong scuffled with police at a weekend protest to support the local Cantonese dialect, a witness said, with a small group of reporters and protesters briefly detained by police.

The second rally in as many weeks -- sparked by a proposal to switch much programing on local television to mainstream Mandarin Chinese -- had kicked off largely peacefully on Sunday afternoon in Guangzhou until several hundred police officers showed up and tried to break up proceedings, triggering scuffles.

About two dozen people were taken away by police and detained, including eight Hong Kong journalists, said one reporter at the scene who was held and questioned for several hours before being released.

Officials detained the organizer of a similar protest last week for several days and threatened to punish anyone who organized new demonstrations. [ID:nTOE66T07I]

Guangzhou police posted a statement on the department’s website accusing the protesters of holding illegal gatherings, saying they would “punish those who were unreasonable and created trouble,” the South China Morning Post reported.

Observers said the sensitivity of Guangzhou authorities to such public protests may be linked to the city’s hosting of the Asian Games in November, one of Asia’s largest sporting events, which has also led to a tightening of immigration policies for the city’s large community of African and Middle Eastern traders.

Stability-obsessed Communist Party officials in Beijing tend, however, to be wary of any public demonstrations that challenge official policy, however minor the issue might appear to be.

In neighboring Hong Kong, around one hundred people held a rally on Sunday and marched to the city’s government headquarters to show support for the mainland protests.

Beijing has promoted Mandarin Chinese, the country’s official language, for decades to unite a nation with thousands of dialects and numerous minority languages.

But Cantonese is still widely spoken in large swathes of southern China including Hong Kong, Macau and the booming province of Guangdong, with people there fiercely proud of their unique linguistic culture and identity, thanks in part to the spill-over influence of Hong Kong’s wildly successful and racy vernacular “Cantopop” culture.

Local Guangzhou television stations were given the go-ahead to start broadcasting in Cantonese in the 1980s in a bid to lure viewers away from cross-border shows.

The plans to shift TV shows back out of Cantonese fed fears the government wants to phase it out in official settings.

An influx of outsiders seeking work in China’s coastal export hubs has bolstered the case for more Mandarin both on television and in daily life, its supporters say.

Reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison in Beijing and James Pomfret in Hong Kong; Editing by Ken Wills & Kazunori Takada