Cantonese speakers face moves against their language from Chinese and American officials

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, at VOA Chinese 70th Birthday Reception on Capitol Hill. BBG members failed to attend the reception and are now proposing to end VOA broadcasts in Cantonese to China.

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, at VOA Chinese 70th Birthday Reception on Capitol Hill. BBG members failed to attend the reception and are now proposing to end VOA broadcasts in Cantonese to China.

Chinese regime officials don’t like Chinese media use of Cantonese language and neither does the Obama Administration for Voice of America news programs to China. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a federal agency in charge of U.S. international broadcasts, has again proposed to end later this year all Voice of America (VOA) radio and television broadcasts in Cantonese. Last year’s attempt by the BBG to terminate VOA radio and TV to China in both Cantonese and Mandarin was stopped in Congress by Democrats and Republicans alike. This time, in their budget submission to Congress for the 2013 fiscal year, BBG officials want to eliminate the entire Voice of America Cantonese Service and VOA radio broadcasts to Tibet. The BBG is also proposing cuts or reductions in broadcasts and information programs in dozens of other languages. Over 200 journalists producing news programs to countries without free media and VOA English programs would lose their jobs under the FY2013 budget proposal.

Chinese regime officials likewise try to discourage Chinese media use of Cantonese language, as they also censor the Internet in an effort to prevent Western news reports in Mandarin and Cantonese from reaching the people in China. As reported by the Voice of America in a dispatch from its correspondent in Hong Kong, “Anger Over Anti-Cantonese Moves in China,” protests had erupted in Hong Kong and Guangzhou in 2010 over a plan by Guangzhou officials to ban Cantonese – the language of southern China – from prime-time television. Some Cantonese speakers saw the move as an attack against their culture.

There are seven major Chinese dialects and many subdialects. Mandarin (or Putonghua), the predominant dialect, is spoken by over 70% of the population. People in southwest and southeast China speak one of the six other major Chinese dialects, of which the Cantonese language originated in the vicinity of Canton (i.e. Guangzhou), has the largest number of speakers. In mainland China, it is a lingua franca in Guangdong Province and some neighbouring areas, such as the eastern part of Guangxi Province. Outside mainland China, it is spoken by the majority population of Hong Kong and Macau in everyday life. It is also spoken by overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, the United States, Canada, Peru, Cuba, Panama, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as part of Europe, and is the most widely spoken Chinese dialect in the world. About 70 million people speak it worldwide.

Cantonese is also the most widely spoken foreign language among Chinese Americans. The importance of Cantonese and the cultural ties between the United States and southern China were recognized by members of Congress who insisted that the Voice of America broadcast to China in both Mandarin and Cantonese. The Congressionally-mandated Public Law 94-350 directed VOA to inform the people in China who speak Cantonese by providing them with news broadcasts that promote freedom and democracy.

In a blow against another non-Mandarin language and culture which the Chinese regime is trying to suppress, the Broadcasting Board of Governors is also proposing to eliminate the Voice of America radio programs in Tibetan, leaving only VOA Tibetan television programs, which the vast majority of people in Tibet are unable to receive. The VOA Tibetan Service was created by an Act of Congress, Public Law 101-246, signed into law on February 16, 1990 “to provide Voice of America Tibetan language programming to the people of Tibet”.

The BBG had tried to reduce radio broadcasts to Tibet already in 2007, but a silent protest staged on Capitol Hill by a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks produced such an outcry against the BBG in Congress that the agency was forced to abandon its plan.

Last year, a similar outcry of bipartisan Congressional disapproval met the BBG plan to end both Cantonese and Mandarin VOA radio and TV broadcasts to China. The plan was strongly defended by Agency officials, but all Democrats and Republicans on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Senate Committee on Appropriations voted to kill the BBG proposal. To show their disapproval of Agency officials, some members of Congress hosted a special reception on Capitol Hill in December 2011 to mark the 70th anniversary of the Voice of America broadcasting to China. The celebration was organized by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher.

In the face of an overwhelming bipartisan rebuke in Congress, BBG members temporarily dropped their plan to end VOA broadcasts to China and in January 2012 even passed a resolution honoring VOA Mandarin and Cantonese broadcasters and acknowledged the Capitol Hill reception which they had failed to attend despite being invited.

RESOLUTION OBSERVING THE 70th ANNIVERSARY OF MANDARIN AND CANTONESE SERVICES OF THE VOICE OF AMERICA
January 13, 2012

WHEREAS, Voice of America (VOA) celebrates 70 years of hard work in bringing accurate news to millions of people throughout the world;

WHEREAS, the Mandarin and Cantonese language services have been key components of U.S. international broadcasting for all these 70 years and have brought news to China where the free flow of information is restricted; and

WHEREAS, a congressional reception has been held to salute the Chinese Branch in December, 2011 and BBG wishes to commemorate the wonderful work of the Chinese services.

NOW, THEREFORE, be it resolved by the Broadcasting Board of Governors that we take note of the 70th anniversary of the Chinese Branch and congratulate all the men and women who have made its mission a reality.

But while the whole Board was expressing its support for the VOA Cantonese Service, some BBG members and their staffers were hard at work making plans to kill VOA radio and TV broadcasting to China in Cantonese. The majority of BBG members voted for this plan, which was unveiled in February 2012 in the BBG FY2013 Budget Proposal:

Discontinue Broadcasting in Cantonese [–$964,000]

VOA Cantonese products continue to have a negligible impact in the crowded South China media market. Audiences are fractional, even for non-news programming. The budget request eliminates VOA broadcasting in Cantonese. As Mandarin and Cantonese are the same written language, VOA will reach the Chinese population targeted by Cantonese on its website. RFA will continue Cantonese broadcasts. This consolidation would also reduce staffing by 7 positions.

The claim by BBG executives that the VOA Cantonese Service has little impact in South China is contradicted by commercially available independent audience surveys that rely not on people being asked questions, to which they may be afraid to respond truthfully, but on PeopleMeters. Using this far more reliable method, the placement of the VOA Cantonese television program segment “American Report” on one of the Hong Kong’s TV channels showed the average share (percent of respondents with televisions that are turned on during the time period) is nearly 10 percent in Hong Kong, and nearly 2 percent in the four Guangdong cities for a single weekly segment less than ten minutes in length.

Contempt in Congress for BBG executives who claim that almost no one in China listens to Voice of America radio or watches VOA TV Cantonese programs comes from both sides of the aisle. During the debate last year in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Brad Sherman D-CA, Congressman Connie Mack R-FL, and Congressman Chris Smith, R-NJ said that BBG “bureaucrats” should not be allowed to make the decision to cut VOA radio and TV to China. Rep. Mack commented on the BBG’s audience research, which claims low audience figures in China for Western radio stations, but which free media advocates describe as completely unreliable: “People in China or Cuba, as you can imagine, will not jump in joy and admit it [listening to Western radio stations]. If you say yes, in China or Cuba, the government will punish you. People are afraid for their own lives.” Rep. Smith pointed out that Intermedia, which the BBG used to conduct audience research, “gets money from the BBG, and then gives money to contractors in Beijing to conduct the survey.”

As the BBG was planning to eliminate the VOA Cantonese Service with an estimated saving of $960,000, cut or reduce dozens of other broadcasts and lay off over 200 journalists, BBG members approved a five-year $50,000,000 audience research contract with Gallup.

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