Chinese internet

Searching Guangzhou: Regionalising Weibo

Written by Wilfred Yang Wang.

“Known to many in the West as ‘Canton’, Guangzhou is the first city most travellers to mainland China visit. Wrapped in a perpetual haze of pink smog and flashing neon lights, the city overwhelms with its energy, colour, and sheer size. Influenced by neighbouring Hong Kong, consumerism has swept up the city in a head-spinning frenzy, but scratch away Guangzhou’s glittery surface and you’ll find a place quite special among China’s major urban centres. It just takes some time to grow on you”

This quote taken from the travel guide Lonely Planet on Guangzhou, the capital city of China’s southern province of Guangdong, is interesting because it foregrounds a journey of exploration, and asks its readers to look beyond the urban capital’s economic prosperity and glamour surfaces to where true excitements can be found.

The proliferation of weibo (micro-blog) services in recent years has attracted rich scholarly and media attention and many commentators focus on weibo’s prominent role in state-public contestations in China. While the political dimension is not to be disputed, learning about a region’s (or city’s) distinctiveness and how it is practiced and manifest through weibo can help us to further appreciate the techno-social integration of the platform.

This post reflects on regionalising Chinese Internet: how the geo-identity of a city/province shapes and is also being shaped by developing communication technologies in China. A city is not merely the administrative unit that is part of the nation, but a city’s transformation and experience over time offer the realm to manage one’s sense of self and belonging. Weibo taps into this process and mediates the tension and conflicts between regions and nation.

Two national projects in recent Chinese history merit attention for contextualising weibo in Guangzhou: the project of economic reform and the project of national identity. These two projects come hand in hand as economic reasons can justify the legitimacy of a national identity that is constructed by the CCP, and it can be achieved through standardisation.

The policy of tuipu (推普), ‘promoting Mandarin’, has been one of the most consistent and determined initiatives by the CCP since the 1950s. [1] Guangzhou media, however, was largely exempt from this policy as the government was hoping the preservation of Cantonese broadcasting (radio and television) would attract Hong Kong investors during the 1980s. This is no longer the case today as the mainland economy is increasingly independent from Hong Kong’s investments. In July 2010, the Guangdong provincial government proposed to replace Cantonese broadcasting on Guangzhou’s major television networks with Mandarin. The proposal triggered public anger and a street protest was organised on weibo and took place on 25 July 2010. The provincial government was forced to drop the initiative.

It is not new for weibo to play a critical role in local disputes, but the display of ‘Guangzhou characteristics’ throughout the online mobilisation was intriguing. For example, the majority of weibo posts were typed in Cantonese expressions and Cantopop songs (from Hong Kong) were uploaded as ‘protest anthems’ to mobilise popular engagement. The use of the language, which was a performance of the Cantonese identity, was both personal and political: it was politically subversive because it confronted the governments’ will of tuipu; it was personal because it speaks to Guangzhouers’ culture and daily life. Moreover, the social tension between local and outsiders (migrant workers in particular) are entirely avoided in the online discourse; it looks like Guangzhouers were trying to manifest a frame of ‘social diversity and equality’ to support the course of their protest.

This protest provides an interesting lead to think about regional specifics of the Chinese Internet rather than seeing online protest and discontent merely as ‘class action’ or ‘generational shift’. Instead, the specific past of Guangzhou and its cultural uniqueness, such as the Cantonese language, its proximity to Hong Kong, and its local-outsider discourse, frame and guide the formation of public opinion and popular mobilising tactics.

common concern about the political capacity of China’s Internet has been its momentary empowerment rather than ongoing democratic practices and values being engaged. Informed by the above observations, I have conducted a longitudinal study by collecting weibo posts over a period of twelve months (20 July 2012 to 30 July 2013) from a weibo group. The group mainly provides news and information about leisure and entertainment in Guangzhou. I am interested in how a Guangzhou identity is reinvented and renegotiated through consumerist tastes and lifestyle preferences. More importantly, how everyday carries politics on weibo.

Some primary observations include the celebration of local food, tourism, and Cantonese popular culture, first confirm the kind of subversive sentiments found in the pro-Cantonese protest; in particular, the main protest slogan, ‘I Love Guangzhou, I love Cantonese’, appear repeatedly in the weibo group’s posts. It suggests the political sentiments of the pro-Cantonese protest did not fade away but the popular sentiment has transformed into the online consumption of material and immaterial goods.

Second, a celebration of post-colonialism through the appreciation of Guangzhou’s historic architecture is emerging. Guangzhou has hosted multiple Western powers’ administrative and consultative zones during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many Guangzhou buildings display obvious European aesthetics. This past, however, is largely erased by the process of urbanisation and the CCP’s unwillingness to acknowledge China’s semi-colonial past in a positive and non-imperialistic rhetoric. It seems like the online revisit of Guangzhou’s past can be seen as a re-narration, or alternative narration of the country.

While I make a case of Guangzhou here, I mean to put forth a possible way to reassess and rethink China’s Internet: through the lens of everyday consumption and routinised practices in a city. Through Guangzhou, we can learn more about the revitalisation of sub-national regions within China’s Great Firewall, and how weibo helps to articulate the re-narration of a region, which can potentially become the re-narration of a nation (China).

Wilfred Yang Wang is a PhD candidate at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Creative Industries and Innovation, Queensland University of Technology, Australia. 

[1] Wang Peiying. (2001). Discussing the regulations in the constitution of ‘Nation wide promotion of Putonghua’ (Lun Xianfa Guanyu ‘Guojia Tuiguang Quanguo Tongyong de Putonghua’ de Kuiding). The Journal of Beijing College of Politics and Law, 27, 9-11.

2 replies »

  1. since more than 50years ago, mandarin=putonghua has been established as the official spoken chinese in 3 of the 4 major chinese communities around the world: mainland china, taiwan and singapore, despite mandarin speaking natives only made up a very small percentage of the population in taiwan and singapore.

    hk was the last chinese community to have the chinese language made official, but instead of following the 3 predecessors’ step, cantonese – not mandarin- was made the official spoken chinese. the choice was purely political: to curb the influence from the socially and culturally more affluent mandarin-speaking elites who fled china after the 1949 power change. despite these mandarin speaking elites only made up a very small percentage of the hk population, they were the key players in the hk chinese cultural affairs. before 1970, most of the hk entertainment productions were dubbed in mandarin. these mandarin speaking elites also had a greater sense of national pride and were partially responsible for the 1967 anti-colonial governance riot. after the riot, with cantonese being made official, there came the new regulations and policies which forbid mandarin broadcasting and mandarin teaching. by 1980, most of the hk movies and songs were dubbed in cantonese.

    making cantonese official has done more damage than good to hk and the greater china. the british are well known for their cultural insight with their >200years history of global colonial empire as backup. had the british had greater respect for the local cantonese heritage, they wouldnt have gone all that long way to recruit policemen from northern china to be stationed in the expat congregated posh area in hk back at the beginning of last century. had the foreign communities had greater respect for the local cantonese heritage, the international schools in hk should have made their chinese lesson mediated in cantonese rather than putonghua. sir wilson was hk’s governor before chris pattern, when he came to do his chinese course in hk university, he also did it in putonghua.

    becoz of warm weather and geo-segregation, cantonese has evolved very slowly and becomes the most backward major dialect of the chinese language and has always been much despised by other chinese, whereas mandarin=putonghua is the most advanced dialect with demographics covering most of the chinese area above the long river(changjiang). cantonese is unintelligible with mandarin but both are still under the same chinese umbrella becoz the chinese written characters are more based on sight-information, of which the standpoint and therefore the theory involved is totally different from the phonic based language system which the west is used to. phonic based system is prone to differentiation with new languages easily being formed whereas the chinese system grows from assimiliation and therefore tends to sustain much longer, which is the key reason why china has remained more or less intact as a big country for most of the time since the first chinese emperor established the central kingdom 2000 years ago.

    cantonese has evolved from a blend of the ancient chinese dialects from central china and the southern tribal languages. being a blend of english and the african language characteristics, black americans’ ebonics could well be a modern equivalent.

    cantonese is no where to compete with mandarin. going against the tide only produces unnecessary conflicts and wastes resources. had hk adopted mandarin as the official spoken form right from the beginning, hk would have only done much better. globalization means dissolving barriers. the primary function of language is for communication. its cultural identy is only secondary. at time of merging, the more backward language should be comprised. thats how progression comes about. that was also how the chinese language diluted and replaced the southern tribal languages back in the history. cantonese was lucky enough to have enjoyed a short moment of “borrowed” glory thanks to china’s recent chaotic downturns. now time has come for mandarin to replace cantonese and things back to the norm.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s