Beijing has a message for China's Cantonese speakers — stick to Mandarin!

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Carol Hills: I'm Carol Hills. This is "The World". I'm going to play you a movie clip now. Quick, what language is being spoken? [Clip plays in Cantonese] Hills: If you said or just guess Chinese you're right. And if you didn't understand a word, well, the same goes for many, many people in China. That's because what you just heard is Cantonese - a language spoken in southern China. Beijing considers it a dialect, a step below the country's official language, Mandarin. Now authorities are telling TV stations in China's most populous region to drop Cantonese and use Mandarin instead. David Wertime follows Chinese social media for Foreign Policy magazine. David, how are Cantonese speakers reacting? David Wertime: Well, what you see online, perhaps unsurprisingly, is quite a bit of pushback at this. Basically the news program, the flagship news bulletin, on Guangdong television, which is the province's official broadcaster, had quietly stopped using Cantonese and switched to Mandarin. This has been something that netizens in China have not necessarily been happy about if they speak Cantonese. You see a number of comments online that are essentially telling the Mandarin language to "buzz off", and you see complaints about sort of a "frog-boiling-in-the-water" approach, the steady effacement of Cantonese from China's discourse. Hills: Now, what's the Chinese government's motivation here? Why is it trying to force Mandarin on Cantonese speakers? Wertime: Well, because of the reports about this latest change and also about the plan to switch more programming in September 1st are tracing to unnamed sources at the Guangdong television station it's unclear exactly which Chinese authorities are behind this and how far up the chain this decision goes. But it's certainly safe to say that Chinese central authorities for over a decade now have really been earnestly pushing Mandarin in many corners of the country, even when I was a Peace Corp volunteer in China as early as 2001, not anywhere near Canton, I may add or Guangdong, there were signs on the campus in which I taught exhorting students to speak in Mandarin, as opposed to their various local dialects. So the central government has long wanted to knit the country together using a common language, or at least that's the narrative that you'll hear from them. I think certainly there are political overtones in particular when it comes to Cantonese which is widely spoken of course in Hong Kong, the semi-autonomous city to the south, and also Canton Province as a whole which has a bit of history of feeling rather independent from Beijing's sway. Hills: Now, I'm curious whether the reaction against the government move to try to get broadcasts in Mandarin, is there a generational aspect to it? Say older Cantonese speakers upset by younger residents of Guangdong and Guangzhou not so much? Wertime: In my experience across China, it's generally true that younger Chinese are more likely to speak good Mandarin. It's clearly something that the government has been pushing with more success. My sense, however, is that there is not a generational divide or not a strong generational divide when it comes to how Cantonese speakers feel about these latest moves. I think that there is an identity issue here at play and also a sense that there is essentially no harm in allowing people to speak Cantonese, whether it's between each other, which is hard to prevent, or on television because many young educated people in that area can speak both Mandarin and Cantonese without trouble. Hills: For non-Chinese speakers what's the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese? Wertime: Well, I can say, as someone who put in a lot of sweat in order to learn Mandarin and has not learned more than a sentence or two of Cantonese, that the two languages are mutually unintelligible. I've spoken with Chinese who are fluent in Mandarin and then have, for example, moved to Guangzhou which is the metropolis at the capital of Canton Province and they essentially have to learn this language again. Now, the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese is not the same thing as the difference between Mandarin and English, for example. The two languages are related, but they are very distinct, and as a result of course you do see this divide. Hills: But of course they use the same characters for written language, don't they? Wertime: They use the same characters, although there's even a wrinkle there. There are simplified characters which were drawn up essentially by communists authorities under Mao and have been widely implemented on the mainland and traditional characters which are still used in Hong Kong. But you're absolutely right that in terms of the written language, a speaker of Cantonese and a speaker of Mandarin could read from and understand the same script, but when they were to read it aloud it would sound extremely different. Hills: Foreign Policy's David Wertime. Thanks a lot. Wertime: Thank you, Carol. Appreciate it.