The Broadcasting Board of Governors has unveiled its budget proposal for FY2013 which calls for eliminating Voice of America radio, television, and Internet programs in Cantonese, ending VOA radio broadcasts to Tibet, cutting foreign language broadcasts to many other nations without free media, and significantly reducing VOA English programs. “U.S. public diplomacy à la BBG in China at its worst,” was how one expert described the Broadcasting Board of Governors “extending a helping hand to the Chinese regime in its crackdown on Cantonese and Tibetan cultures.”

The following is a guest commentary that takes a look at how the Chinese authorities and a U.S. federal government agency adopted a similar approach to media use of the Cantonese language.


News Commentary by Quo Vadis (Marie Ciliberti)

In a statement issued on February 13, 2012, announcing its budget request for 2013,  the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) trumpeted sweeping cuts in English and language broadcasts and a reduction of almost 200 jobs at its flagship station, the Voice of America, this year celebrating its 70th, and as many believe, its final anniversary.  
Among the VOA broadcasts facing obliteration:  the Cantonese Service which has been on the air since February of 1939 when the United States began its link with the people in China who speak Cantonese by providing them with news broadcasts and then programs to promote freedom and democracy. Its role was reaffirmed by Public Law 94-350 which established the VOA Charter. 
In its announcement, the BBG, as justification for its decision, stated: “as Mandarin and Cantonese are the same written language, VOA will reach Cantonese listeners on its website.”  There is a slight problem with this assertion.  

Without going into the language of linguists who use exotic-for-the-general-public words like logographic, semanto-phonetic and morphophonemic, let’s break it down in more understandable terms:  

Written Chinese uses Classical and Standard characters. Both Cantonese and Mandarin speakers can read Classical Chinese.   Standard Chinese is based on the Mandarin dialect with vocabulary drawn from Mandarin speech. Therefore, the BBG is partly correct in saying that Mandarin and Cantonese speakers can both READ the classical WRITTEN Chinese language.  However, (and it’s quite a significant “however”), written and spoken Cantonese is almost completely different from written and spoken Mandarin because Cantonese is essentially a different language in its spoken form. 
So, in short, according to linguists, with some variations, this is basically how it goes:
Mandarin speakers can read Standard Written Chinese (Mandarin) but not Written Cantonese.

Mandarin speakers understand Spoken Mandarin but generally don’t understand Spoken Cantonese although there are some Mandarin speakers who can.

Cantonese speakers can read Written Chinese (Mandarin) and their own Written Cantonese.

Some Cantonese speakers can understand Spoken Mandarin but all understand Spoken Cantonese. 

Boiled down to more understandable terms:

A Cantonese speaker and a Mandarin speaker can look at the exact same written text and understand what it says.  But ask them to read it out loud, and it’s the proverbial duck talking to the chicken.
That’s a bit different from the BBG statement which calls for a faulty and suspect conclusion to justify an action that they have taken with little or no research as to its validity and complexity.
Essentially, the BBG decision means that the approximately 60+ million speakers of Cantonese in mainland China which includes the large provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi  as well as the predominantly Cantonese-speaking population (7 million) of Hong Kong plus another half-million in Macau will be deprived of news and information from the United States of America. 
Not only information from America.  The central communist government in Beijing decided that as of March 1st of 2012, domestic radio and TV Cantonese broadcasts to the mainly Cantonese-speaking populous province of Guangdong will disappear (broadcasters will have to apply for permission to broadcast).  
This latest move against media use of Cantonese comes after the government proposed switching prime-time programming on Guangdong TV’s main channels from Cantonese to Mandarin in 2010. Implementation was postponed when the decision triggered mass demonstrations by Cantonese speakers, demonstrations so intense that the VOA covered them in its English-language broadcasts. 

Keeping VOA Cantonese broadcasts alive could and should be a strategic decision by the BBG in order to maintain and moreover, to increase listenership among a population now deprived of media in its own language.  
In the olden days of VOA, issues such as these were discussed and debated prior to implementation.  Not so now. Unfortunately, trying to point these facts out to the members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and their executive staff is akin to speaking Mandarin to a Cantonese and vice versa:  quack-quack to cluck-cluck: like a duck talking to a chicken.