Cantonese live streamers say TikTok’s sister app Douyin forces them to speak Mandarin in China

Eva Lv was trying to sell a dress to the 100 viewers watching her live on Douyin, TikTok’s sister app in China, when the stream abruptly stopped. According to the livestreamer, a message had appeared on her screen seconds before, telling her that the app was unable to recognize the language she spoke. Lv did not speak Mandarin, the official language of China; she spoke in her native language, Cantonese, a language widely used in southern China and Hong Kong.

Many live streamers – from tea sellers to musicians to health influencers – use Cantonese almost exclusively to attract audiences in Guangdong, the country’s capital. richest province, home to the metropolises of Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Since late September, some of these creators have accused the platform of cutting their live streams because they speak Cantonese, sparking an outcry from the wider Cantonese community on China’s most popular video app.

Cantonese is speak by more than 80 million people worldwide, more than the population of France or Italy. The language is widely used in manufacturing centers in southern China, including Guangzhou, Foshan, and Zhuhai. It is also the primary language spoken in the former colonies of Hong Kong and Macau, forming an essential part of their local cultural identity.

Over the past two weeks, dozens of other creators have made videos protesting what they say is discrimination against their native language, attracting tens of thousands of likes and comments. “Guangdong can give up Douyin, but it must not give up Cantonese,” read a comment that has been liked more than 1,000 times. On the Weibo microblogging site, some users said they uninstalled Douyin in protest.

Chen Jiayao, a 30-year-old health influencer from Guangzhou, said Rest of the world that he also received the “unrecognizable language” warning in the middle of a Cantonese livestream last month, although the broadcast then continued as usual. Chen said he started broadcasting his daily live streams in Cantonese to capture the lucrative southern Chinese market, and also to encourage young people to speak the language. “It would make no sense to ban us from speaking our mother tongue,” he said.

A spokesperson for Douyin, owned by ByteDance, said Rest of the world that the platform does not prohibit speaking Cantonese during a livestream, although some hosts have been restricted for using vulgar and abusive language. “Douyin continues to take steps to improve its moderation capabilities for many local dialects and languages, including Cantonese,” the spokesperson said.

Defining exactly what makes a language or dialect is tricky, and depending on that definition, there are dozens to hundreds of languages ​​spoken across China. For decades, the Chinese government has promoted mandarin as a means of forging national unity, making it the official language of education, government agencies and most public television channels. Despite their declining popularity among younger generations, however, some regional languages, including Cantonese, are still commonly used in informal settings.

Social media companies in China are under increasing pressure from the government to control online speech, and having more languages ​​to monitor only complicates their efforts. On Douyin, for example, Cantonese users sometimes get away with saying the equivalent of the F-word on camera – similar swear words in Mandarin are unlikely to pass censorship. In September, residents of Guangzhou protested against strict Covid-19 lockdowns by posting a variety of Cantonese references to genitalia on Weibo, many of which remain uncensored to this day.

Given the shortage of moderators and algorithms able to recognize other Chinese languages, some platforms have asked users to stop speaking them. A former ByteDance employee said Protocol in 2021 that Douyin streamers had been asked to switch to Mandarin because content moderators couldn’t understand what they were saying. Since 2020, Douyin creators have complained about being cut off for speaking Cantonese Where Uighur during live broadcasts. Users of the Bilibili video-sharing platform also reported having noticed the site banning Uyghur, Tibetan, and Mongolian scripts in comment sections.

The suppression of minority languages ​​in education and the media has in the past leads to backlash, especially where languages ​​are closely linked to cultural identities. Gina Anne Tam, a professor at Trinity University in San Antonio who studies Chinese history and languages, said Rest of the world that the wealth of the Cantonese community, as well as their ties to Hong Kong as well as foreign speakers, have also given them the strength to defend one’s mother tongue.

But the restrictions on languages ​​other than Mandarin online showed how deprived they were of the support they needed to remain functional and living languages, Tam said. “Ultimately, languages ​​are meant to die when they are actively denied structural support to serve as an essential means of both expressing our own identities and connecting with others,” Tam said. Rest of the world. “This would, obviously, include video and livestream content.”

Many livestreams and videos made in Cantonese and other non-Mandarin languages ​​can still be found on Douyin, but fear of being banned again is prompting some Cantonese livestreamers to switch to Mandarin. A Douyin customer service representative also Told HK01 media that the hosts were advised to speak Mandarin so that they could be understood by a national audience.

Despite their displeasure, the creators say they have no choice but to abide by Douyin’s rules in order to profit from the country’s most popular short-video site with 600 million daily active users.

Lv, the direct clothing seller in Guangdong province, said Rest of the world she had tried to make her sales pitches in Mandarin to avoid future bans, even though she had trouble speaking the language. She said her Mandarin was so heavily accented that viewers told her she was funny. “I’m not able to capture the essence of products in Mandarin,” she said. “I would completely lose my words. I felt like they were coming to my mouth, but I just couldn’t pronounce them.

About Stuart M. McFarland

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