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China divided over country's common language

GUANGZHOU -- Free-wheeling and business-oriented, the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou is a long way from Beijing physically, culturally and linguistically — and hackles have been raised by reports Communist authorities are demanding local television drop Cantonese in favor of Mandarin.

Throughout China, Mandarin — known as Putonghua, the “common language,” with its roots in Beijing's northern dialect — is the medium of government, education and national official media.

The ruling Communist Party has long viewed it as a means of weakening regional loyalties and forging a sense of common identity, particularly in far-flung areas such as Xinjiang and Tibet which see fits of resistance to Beijing's rule.

But according to a ministry of education statement last year, 30 percent of Chinese — 400 million people — still cannot speak Mandarin.

Cantonese is the first language of roughly half the population of Guangzhou, China's third-largest city and the provincial capital of Guangdong — where for many elderly residents, it is their only tongue.

Nonetheless reports in neighboring Hong Kong said the province's official broadcaster Guangdong TV was planning to quietly switch most of its programming from Cantonese to Mandarin on Sept. 1.

In mainland China the two languages generally use the same characters for the same words, so that they are mutually intelligible in written form — but incomprehensible when spoken.

“I oppose them changing it all to Mandarin,” said Huang Yankun, a 17-year-old student, walking past the television station's headquarters. “It's wrong for them to try to restrict the language in this way.

“Speaking Cantonese is a Guangdong custom; it's a tradition that we need to support.”

'Linguistic force'

Cantonese is spoken by more than 60 million people in China, according to the state-run China Daily — on par with Italian in terms of native speaker numbers.

But some in Guangzhou worry that as young people and their parents focus on Mandarin for academic and career reasons, Cantonese may fall by the wayside.

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