HONG KONG—Chinese officials have denied reports that thousands of people took part in mass protests in support of the Cantonese language earlier this month, as activists reported intimidation by national security police in the wake of the demonstration.
Instead, authorities in the southern city of Guangzhou said they had detained a man from central Hubei province since last weekend’s protests on suspicion of “disseminating fake news.”
“The reports that 20,000 people would assemble in support of Cantonese were rumors, cooked up to incite people to illegal assembly,” a spokesman for the Guangzhou municipal government told reporters.
“This had a negative effect on society,” he said. “The man, from Hubei ... was held for five days under administrative detention.”
Activists who took part in the protest in Guangzhou last weekend, in which an estimated 2,000 people showed up outside a designated stop on the city’s metro rail system, said they were already being put under pressure.
“They came and found us while we were eating,” said a Guangzhou-based activist surnamed Li who offered accommodation to a protester who came from Shenzhen to take part.
“They said they could take away our home over this issue. The national security police told us this,” she said.
Afraid of trouble
She said her husband’s friend Zheng Chuangtian was followed when he arrived last weekend in the provincial capital of Guangdong, the home of the Cantonese language.
“For us, as rights activists, to protect Zheng is the same as protecting all citizens,” Li said. “We haven’t broken any laws. We are trying to protect our own language.”
“We are not afraid of them, but it is a very difficult task to fight for our rights,” she said.
Zheng said he had left Guangzhou for fear of bringing further trouble to his friends and fellow activists.
“Before I left the city I called the national security police and told them that if they had a problem they should come to me, not go disturbing my friends,” he said.
“I told them I would probably be coming to Guangzhou to look for work. They said that would give us plenty more opportunities to meet.”
Activists have since called for the “Support Cantonese” campaign to continue in southern China this weekend, with organizers calling for people to rally on Sunday in neighboring Hong Kong, where Cantonese is an official language.
“I believe we can gather 100,000 people to stop China’s evil act of promoting Mandarin and destroying Cantonese!!!” the Hong Kong-based organizers wrote on the event’s Facebook page.
“Protect Chinese heritage against the extinction of our culture by dictators,” one supporter wrote on the site.
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 proposal was linked to Guangzhou’s hosting of the 16th Asian Games from Nov. 12-27.
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 at the time.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, with Macau following in 1999. Both territories are now Special Administrative Regions of the People’s Republic of China.
Hong Kong has a thriving movie industry and pop music scene, both of which produce a large part of their output in Cantonese.
Original reporting in Cantonese by Lin Jing and in Mandarin by Ding Xiao. 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.