HONG KONG—Thousands of people flocked to a suburb of Guangzhou in southern China over the weekend to protest government plans to reduce Cantonese-language broadcasting in the city ahead of the Asian Games in November.
"There are more than 2,000 people here right now," one participant said Sunday.
"The first people who got here were asked to leave by the police, who kept telling them to leave."
"Some people have brought guitars, to support Cantonese," the protester said.
A second person at the scene said he was being followed by at least three police officers.
"Right now 2,000-3,000 people have gathered near Exit A of the Jiangnan West subway station," the man said. "There are four police officers following me."
The authorities contacted campaigners ahead of Sunday's rally, warning them that it would be viewed as an "illegal gathering."
Campaign organizer and Guangzhou University student Dong Guanying (in Cantonese, Tung Kwoon-ying) said local officials had contacted her in the run-up to the event, asking her to give up the campaign and sign a guarantee of good behavior.
She said she and other organizers had formally canceled the planned protest on Sunday.
"We have already canceled the event. If it were possible we'd apply to hold it through legal channels, but for the time being it's not," Dong said Friday.
"We just want to inform young people that this city they were born and bred in is in fact quite weak and frail.
Guangzhou-based composer Li Zhengxi, whose song in support of the campaign has become hugely popular on the video-sharing site YouTube, said he wants to protect his mother tongue.
"I was raised here," Li said. "Cantonese is my native tongue. I naturally sing Cantonese songs."
"Now the government is trying to promote Mandarin, but the situation could still evolve from there."
"Sometimes you don't realize that you want something until you lose it," Li said.
Some users wrote via the microblogging service Twitter that the provincial propaganda department had ordered all domestic media outlets to stick to official reports about the Cantonese language issue, forbidding them from interviewing ordinary people at random on the topic.
But an official who answered the phone at the Guangdong provincial propaganda office was unable to confirm the reports, saying he was unfamiliar with the situation.
Guangdong-based social commentator Ye Du said that while some participants had been contacted by police for questioning, it was hard to identify any actual "organizers," as each of the participants in the spontaneous event was also an organizer.
"It comes from a certain self-awareness on the part of participants that they don't need an organizer to motivate them," Ye said.
The movement to "protect Cantonese" had its roots in Internet-based social media, participants said, quickly becoming a trending topic on microblogging services like Twitter and on the QQ chat network.
"Some people were sending out information to us on QQ," said a Guangzhou resident surnamed Wang. "In China there are limits to how many people are allowed to gather together. If you go over those limits, the police will tell you not to take part."
"The citizens of Guangzhou are sick of this," she said.
'Taking away local color'
Another Guangzhou resident, surnamed Yang, said the government is making a mountain out of a molehill.
"There's really no need to take it quite so seriously," Yang said.
"Of course we will speak Mandarin to visitors in the city. There is no problem with speaking Mandarin here at all."
She said if the issue was the Asian Games, then it would be more logical to make Guangzhou residents polish up their English.
"What's the point of taking away all the local color of this place just to hold the Asian Games here in my hometown?" Yang said.
"When in Rome, do as the Romans do."
According to a protester surnamed Zeng, a number of people from out of town attended the event.
"Some of the people who came were from other parts of China. What connection do they have to Cantonese?" she said. "They are disgusted by this plan, and that's why they came to protest."
'Right of minorities'
Rights lawyer Liu Shijun said the protest is about respecting the rights of a linguistic minority to preserve their language and culture.
"The right of minorities to preserve their language is protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights," Liu said.
Guangzhou, capital of the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, will host the 16th Asian Games from Nov. 12-27.
According to official media reports, the proposal that the city's Guangzhou TV should either provide more Mandarin news bulletins or launch a new Mandarin channel was first put forward at the municipal level Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference on July 5.
The official Xinhua news agency reported that an online survey on the committee's official website showed that of the 30,000 respondents, among whom two-thirds were Guangzhou natives, 79.5 percent opposed the proposal while only 20.5 percent supported it.
Generally, television stations in China are required to use Mandarin, but Guangzhou TV was given special approval in the 1980s to broadcast in Cantonese to attract viewers from neighboring Hong Kong and Macau, which were still under British and Portuguese rule, respectively.
Original reporting in Cantonese by Li Li and in Mandarin by Qiao Long. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated from the Chinese and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.