HomeOppression and Human RightsCCP: To Truly Be Chinese is to Speak only Mandarin

CCP: To Truly Be Chinese is to Speak only Mandarin

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Late August bore witness to a disturbing episode in Hong Kong: the authorities raided the residence of Andrew Chan, founder of the Hong Kong Language Learning Association, an organization dedicated to preserving the Cantonese language. The cause of this alarming incident was an essay competition held three years prior that celebrated literature in Cantonese. The bone of contention was a story that explored a future where the history of Hong Kong was deliberately erased by authoritarian rule. The consequence? Under immense pressure, Chan dissolved an association that had championed Hong Kong’s unique linguistic culture for nearly a decade.

The tapestry of languages spoken across China is both rich and intricate. While Mandarin is the most recognized, many other languages, from Cantonese to Uyghur, have roots deep within the nation’s cultural heritage. Yet, the Chinese government appears to be increasingly aligning with a singular belief: to truly be Chinese is to speak only Mandarin. And this narrative seems to be tightening its grip.

It’s a misconception to view China as a monolingual nation. From Uyghur to Shanghainese, the linguistic landscape is vast. Historically, these languages have been termed “dialects,” a label that belies their rich complexities and distinct identities. Yet, there is a method to this linguistic reductionism; it stems from the state’s endeavors to promote Mandarin, anchored in the dialect of Beijing, as the sole language of the nation.

Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the push for Mandarin’s dominance has intensified. State-sanctioned programs, like the annual “promote Mandarin week,” have been rolled out across schools, urging children to embrace Mandarin as the embodiment of the Chinese dream. Beyond just promoting the language, there’s also been a concerted effort to suppress regional languages. Native Uyghur speakers face punitive actions, and in Tibet, advocating for linguistic rights can lead to arrests.

It’s not just the minorities; even widely spoken languages like Cantonese, which resonates with a large section of the Han majority, haven’t been spared. The tale of the Hong Kong Language Learning Association is testament to this. For years, there has been rhetoric that positions Cantonese and other such languages as mere dialects, inferior to Mandarin.

But the state’s strategy isn’t limited to direct suppression. There’s a subtler, more insidious approach at play: determining where to invest and where to ignore. The widespread use of the Mandarin-centric Hanyu Pinyin system for romanization is a case in point. Platforms like Douyin (TikTok’s Chinese counterpart) have urged users to stick to Mandarin, citing lack of infrastructure for Cantonese moderation. The message is clear: if it’s not Mandarin, it’s not a priority.

The essence of this strategy is not just about language. It’s a broader push for homogenization, a vision where one’s Chinese identity is intricately tied to the state’s definition. In Hong Kong, this is palpable. From banning the protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong” to restructuring education to emphasize Chinese, rather than Hong Konger, identity, the intent is clear.

However, this increasing centralization hasn’t gone unchallenged. The 2019 protests in Hong Kong showcased the region’s distinctive identity, with a vast majority distancing themselves from a solely Chinese identity. The spirit of resistance is embedded in the Cantonese language itself, which became a rallying cry during the protests.

Yet, the closure of the Hong Kong Language Learning Association highlights the tangible threat to linguistic diversity in China. When the state determines the parameters of linguistic expression, it not only stifles voices but also dims the rich tapestry of identity that defines the nation.

The question that remains is whether the Chinese Communist Party will be able to crush the diverse soul of China in the interest of creating an easier to manage Communist uniformity.

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