China’s TikTok blocks Cantonese streams as ‘unrecognizable language’

The Chinese Communist Party’s push to stamp out the Cantonese dialect gained a boost on Wednesday with reports that Douyin, the domestic Chinese version of video microblogging platform TikTok, had begun treating Cantonese as an “unrecognizable language”.

Cantonese streamers told the South China Morning Post (SCMP) their broadcasts were suddenly interrupted mid-stream, with error messages from Douyin claiming that the broadcasts used “unrecognizable language or texts”.

Some of these streamers have been broadcasting shows with millions of viewers on Douyin for years without serious difficulties, although some have complained of short interruptions due to “unrecognizable language errors” in the past.

On a remarkable occasion in April 2020, Douyin forbidden several streamers for using Cantonese and explicitly encouraged them to switch to Mandarin. ByteDance claimed this was necessary because the fast-growing platform did not yet employ enough content moderators fluent in Cantonese.

“Banning Cantonese live broadcasts for no reason…isn’t that discrimination against Cantonese people and the Cantonese language?” asked a disappointed serbander.

Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Thomas Peter-Pool/Getty Images)

ByteDance, the company that owns Douyin and TikTok, did not comment when asked about the new difficulties faced by Cantonese streamers.

The company previously claimed that it plans to develop more dialect support for Douyin, a promise that Cantonese streamers dismissed as “ridiculous” since the streaming services have been offered since 2018 and Cantonese is hardly an obscure dialect. If ByteDance really wanted to support Cantonese, its users argue, it would have done so a long time ago. In contrast, the use of Cantonese seems to be steadily increasing more difficult.

About 84 million Chinese residents I speak Cantonese, who make up about 4.5 percent of the population, compared to about 61 percent who speak Mandarin, the preferred dialect of the Chinese central government, which renamed it Putonghua or “common language”. The difference is made by many other regional dialects.

The Cantonese language attracts so much hostility from the central government because it is popular in Hong Kong and the nearby Chinese provinces. Beijing wants it subjugate Hong Kong’s sense of independence and unique culture prompts the island’s residents to speak Mandarin. Cantonese is also popular among overseas Chinese since many of them immigrated from the Hong Kong area.

The first stage of the Chinese Communist Party’s attack on Cantonese was completed by the relocation of large numbers of Mandarin speakers to the island. The SCMP on Wednesday noted that the next stage appears to involve pressuring Internet platforms such as Douyin to make life inconvenient for Cantonese speakers.

One reason for the renewed anti-Cantonese push is that China’s censorship algorithms have difficulty scanning posts written in local dialects, as in the case of anti-lockdown criticism written by Cantonese speakers in the province next to Hong Kong.

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