Chinese social media giant Douyin pulls plug on live-streams in Cantonese

Commentators say the move is linked to an ongoing crackdown on dissent and traditional freedoms in Hong Kong.
By Chen Zifei for RFA Cantonese and Mandarin
2022.10.06
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Chinese social media giant Douyin pulls plug on live-streams in Cantonese Douyin, China's most popular social platform, recently banned its streamers from using Cantonese to live stream, causing dissatisfaction among a large number of streamers.
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Chinese social media platform Douyin appears to have pulled the plug on a live-stream host broadcasting in Cantonese, a regional Chinese language that is also the lingua franca of Hong Kong.

"We haven't been live-streaming much at all on Douyin lately," live-stream host Fung Siu, who has more than 4.6 million followers, said in a video statement posted to Facebook.

"The reason is very simple. The platform is banning hosts from live-streaming in the Cantonese language," he said. "They even shut down our account."

"The reason they gave is very simple. It's that they can't understand this language," Fung Siu said. "It's a pretty ridiculous reason, actually."

"The subtitles you can see on the bottom of the screen right now were all added using automation by the platform itself," he said.

"Yet they have no way of understanding me."

Mandarin Chinese, which largely derives from the language of Beijing officialdom, uses the same script as Cantonese, but the two are mutually unintelligible to casual listeners.

Cantonese has a subset of Chinese characters used to express specific structures and parts of speech not found in Mandarin, and these were also present in the Douyin automated subtitles to Fung Siu's video.

"There are many people in countries all around the world [who understand Cantonese], and we Cantonese are the biggest population in the country," Fung Siu said.

"Guangdong ranks first in the country in terms of the number of people online, annual GDP growth and online sales, yet you are so backward that you don't want ... a group of valuable Cantonese-speaking customers on your platform. Bye bye," he said.

Furious reactions

Fung's video prompted a flurry of reaction videos by fellow Cantonese speakers.

"Why should we be treated differently just for saying a few words in Cantonese on Douyin," one said.

Another answered claims from Mandarin speakers that Cantonese was an "uncivilized" language.

"People have been speaking Cantonese for thousands of years. Why do they say it's uncivilized?" the live-streamer said. "You can speak Mandarin. In Guangdong, people around you already speak Mandarin. We cater to you, but why can't you tolerate Cantonese? Who finds it offensive?"

They added that live-streamers are still allowed on Douyin speaking the dialects of Chinese found in Chongqing, the northeast and Chengdu.

A live-streamer with the handle @honest_guy_from_Guangdong said Fung Siu isn't the only Cantonese-language live-streamer to be banned, citing other broadcasters who have had their videos taken down from the site, or have been banned from the site.

Most are awaiting an explanation from Douyin, and daren't post for the time being, he added.

"It took everyone at least one or two years to get onto Douyin, and its growth isn't just down to Douyin on its own," he said.

"Now, the risks are too great, because we don't know if our video will be banned," he said. "I plan to take a break and wait for them to respond either clearly, saying they don't want us using Cantonese, or saying we can, and then we can start live-streaming again."

Current affairs commentator Fang Yuan said Douyin's ban on the use of Cantonese was likely linked to the current crackdown on all forms of political opposition and peaceful dissent in Hong Kong, in the wake of the 2019 protest movement.

"Over the past 40-something years of economic reform, Cantonese has represented a particular form of cultural ideology in China," Fang said. "With Hong Kong backing it up, it represents an innovative consciousness that is friendly to what is foreign."

"This has had a number of impacts on the mainland."

'Hostile foreign forces'

Now that ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping is moving China away from the economic reforms of late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping and closer to a state-controlled economy focused on domestic demand, that image has become linked to claims that recent waves of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong were the work of "hostile foreign forces" trying to foment a color revolution in the city, Fang said.

"The weakening of Hong Kong and its [ongoing] integration with the mainland also means the weakening of Cantonese," Fang said.

Cheng Yizhong, who founded the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily, said the Cantonese-speaking people of Guangdong province have always been vulnerable to political persecution under the CCP due to the province's history as a source of Chinese migrants and a major international trading port.

Millions fled to Hong Kong during the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) under late supreme leader Mao Zedong.

"The CCP insists on a one-size-fits-all policy that is strict and extreme, culturally and ideologically," Cheng told RFA. "Language, as the carrier of both culture and ideology, must be restricted to one and one alone, and to something they can understand."

"Especially now, under the current totalitarian rule by the CCP," he said. "What if you were to use it to make fun of them; they can't allow such a thing to happen."

"Someone might use Cantonese to insult them or undermine their message, and they wouldn't know," Cheng said. "That would be an even bigger offense."

Cheng said there are already parallels in recent bans on schools using Mongolian to teach ethnic minority youngsters.

In March 2018, posters and graffiti briefly appeared on the streets of Guangzhou calling for independence not just for neighboring Hong Kong, but for Guangzhou.

Graffiti phrases like "Independence for Guangzhou, Go Hong Kong!" were photographed in a number of public places in the city, which is the provincial capital of Guangdong province, and lies at the heart of the Pearl River delta economic area.

The slogans were spotted at bus stops, and on the backs of bus seats, with the words scrawled in different color marker pens in traditional Chinese characters of the kind still taught and used in Hong Kong.

In mainland China, the ruling Chinese Communist Party simplified large numbers of Chinese characters after coming to power in 1949, while the original characters are still taught in Taiwan and Hong Kong, which weren't under communist control at the time of the reforms to the writing system.

Cantonese speakers in Guangdong province, which gave the dialect its name, have said they feel culturally very connected to those living in Hong Kong, where Cantonese has been an official language of government and the lingua franca of most residents for generations.

In 2010, thousands of people took part in mass protests in Guangzhou in support of the Cantonese language after a mainland Chinese political body called for cuts in Cantonese-language broadcasts.

Flash mobs showed up in public places wearing white as a sign of protest, sparking similar actions in Hong Kong. However, activists reported intimidation by state security police in the wake of the demonstrations.

Generally, television stations in China are required to use Mandarin, but the Guangzhou Broadcasting Network (GZBN) 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.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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