Hong Kong CNN —
In many countries, swearing at the government online is so commonplace that no one bats an eyelid. But it’s not such an easy task on China’s heavily censored internet.
That doesn’t seem to have stopped Guangzhou residents from venting their frustration after their city – a global manufacturing hub of 19 million people – became the epicenter of a nationwide Covid outbreak, prompting renewed lockdown measures.
“We had to lockdown in April and then again in November,” a resident posted Monday on Weibo, China’s restricted version of Twitter — before peppering the post with profanity that included references to officials’ mothers. “The government didn’t give any subsidies – do you think my rent doesn’t cost money?”
Other users left posts with instructions that loosely translates to “go to hell,” while some accused authorities of “spreading nonsense” — albeit in less polite terms.
Such colorful posts are notable not only for depicting growing public frustration with China’s relentless zero-Covid policy — which uses immediate lockdowns, mass testing, extensive contact tracing and quarantines to stamp out infections as they emerge — but because they remain visible at all .
Normally, such harsh criticisms of government policies would be quickly removed by the government’s censorship army, but those posts have remained untouched for days. And that’s most likely because they’re written in language that few censors will fully understand.
These posts are in Cantonese, which originated in Guangzhou’s surrounding province of Guangdong and is spoken by tens of millions of people across southern China. It can be difficult for speakers of Mandarin – China’s official and government-preferred language – to decipher, especially in its written and often complex slang forms.
And this seems to be just the latest example of Chinese turning to Cantonese — an irreverent language that offers rich opportunities for satire — to express their dissatisfaction with their government without attracting the attention of all-seeing censors.
In September this year, the US-based independent media watchdog China Digital Times found that scores of dissatisfied Cantonese posts had slipped past censorship in response to Guangdong’s mass Covid testing requirements.
“Perhaps because Weibo’s content censorship system struggles to recognize the spelling of Cantonese characters, many posts written in sharp, bold, and direct language still survive. But if the same content is written in Mandarin, it’s likely to be blocked or deleted,” said the organization, which is affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley.
In nearby Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong, anti-government protesters frequently used Cantonese puns in 2019, both for protest slogans and as a shield from possible surveillance by mainland Chinese authorities.
Now, Cantonese appears to offer a way for those fed up with China’s continuous zero-Covid lockdowns to show more subtle disagreements.
Jean-François Dupré, an assistant professor of political science at Université TÉLUQ who has studied Hong Kong’s language policy, said the Chinese government’s shrinking tolerance for public criticism has pushed its critics to “innovate” in their communications.
“It appears that using non-Mandarin forms of communication could allow dissidents to evade online censorship, at least for a time,” Dupré said.
“This phenomenon is a testament to the regime’s lack of trust and growing paranoia, as well as citizens’ continued willingness to resist despite the risks and hurdles.”
Although Cantonese shares much of its vocabulary and writing system with Mandarin, many of its slang terms, swear words, and everyday idioms do not have a Mandarin equivalent. Its written form also sometimes relies on characters that are infrequently used and archaic or mean something entirely different in Mandarin, so Cantonese phrases can be difficult for Mandarin readers to understand.
Compared to Mandarin, Cantonese is very colloquial, often informal, and lends itself easily to puns—making it good for inventing and hurling barbs.
When Hong Kong was rocked by anti-government protests in 2019 – fueled in part by fears that Beijing was encroaching on the city’s autonomy, freedoms and culture – these attributes of Cantonese came into focus.
“Cantonese was obviously a key transmitter of political grievances during the 2019 protests,” Dupré said, adding that the language “brought a strong local flavor to the protests.”
He pointed out how entirely new written characters spontaneously emerged from the pro-democracy movement – including one that combined the characters for “freedom” with a popular profanity.
Other plays with written characters exemplify Cantonese’s endless creativity, such as a stylized version of “Hong Kong” which, when read sideways, becomes “add oil” — a rallying cry of the protests.
Protesters also found ways to protect their communications, fearing online chat groups – where they organized rallies and railed against the authorities – were being monitored by mainland agents.
For example, because spoken Cantonese sounds different from spoken Mandarin, some people experimented with romanizing Cantonese—spelling the sounds using the English alphabet—making it virtually impossible for a non-native speaker to understand.
And while protests died down after the Chinese government imposed a sweeping national security law in 2020, Cantonese continues to offer city residents a way to express their unique local identity — something people have long feared losing as the City is being pulled more and more under the grip of Beijing.
For some, using Cantonese to criticize the government seems particularly fitting, as the central government has aggressively pushed for the use of Mandarin in education and in daily life nationwide – such as in TV shows and other media – often at the expense of regional languages and dialects.
Those efforts sparked a nationwide controversy in 2010 when government officials suggested stepping up Mandarin programming on the mainly Cantonese Guangzhou TV station – outraging local residents, who took part in rare mass street rallies and scuffles with police.
It’s not just Cantonese that’s been affected — many ethnic minorities have raised alarms that the decline of their native language could mean the end of cultures and ways of life they say are already under threat.
In 2020, students and parents in Inner Mongolia staged mass school boycotts over a new policy replacing the Mongolian language with Mandarin in elementary and middle schools.
Similar fears have long existed in Hong Kong – and grew in the 2010s as more Mandarin-speaking mainlanders began to live and work in the city.
“Increasing numbers of Mandarin-speaking school children have been enrolled in Hong Kong schools and have been seen commuting between Shenzhen and Hong Kong on a daily basis,” Dupré said. “Through these encounters, the language change in Guangdong became clearly visible to the people of Hong Kong.”
He added that these concerns were compounded by local government policies that emphasized the role of Mandarin and labeled Cantonese as a “dialect” – infuriating some Hong Kongers, who took the term as a snub and argued it should be labeled a “language”. become” instead.
Over the past decade, schools across Hong Kong have been encouraged by the government to switch to Mandarin for Chinese instruction, while others have shifted to teaching simplified characters – the mainland’s preferred written form – in place of the traditional characters used in Hong Kong.
There was further outrage in 2019 when the city’s education chief suggested that the continued use of Cantonese instead of Mandarin in the city’s schools could mean Hong Kong would lose its competitive edge going forward.
“Given Hong Kong’s rapid economic and political integration, it would not be surprising if Hong Kong’s language regime were aligned with the mainland, particularly in terms of promoting Mandarin,” said Dupré.
It’s not the first time that mainlanders have found ways to circumvent censorship. Many use emojis to represent taboo phrases, English abbreviations to represent Mandarin phrases, and images such as cartoons and digitally altered photos that are harder for censors to monitor.
But these methods naturally have their limitations. In contrast, Cantonese offers the well-fed residents of Guangzhou an endless landscape of languages with which to insult their leaders.
It’s not clear whether this more subversive use of Cantonese will encourage greater solidarity among its speakers in southern China — or whether it could embolden the central government to further crack down on the use of local dialects, Dupré said.
For now, however, many Weibo users have taken the rare opportunity to express their frustration with China’s zero-Covid policy, which has battered the country’s economy, isolating it from the rest of the world and threatening people’s daily lives with the constant threat of lockdowns and lockdown has disrupted unemployment.
“I hope everyone can keep their anger alive,” one Weibo user wrote, noting that most of the posts related to the Guangzhou lockdowns were in Cantonese.
“Watching Cantonese rant (authorities) on Weibo without getting caught,” posted another, using characters meaning laughter.
“Learn Cantonese well and navigate Weibo without fear.”