China’s version of TikTok reportedly judges Cantonese, a Chinese dialect spoken by 85 million, as ‘unrecognizable’

The Douyin logo on a smartphone
Douyin, ByteDance’s version of TikTok for China, is being accused of suppressing content in Cantonese.
Yan Cong—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Cantonese-speaking livestreamers are accusing Douyin, ByteDance’s version of TikTok for the Chinese market, of prematurely cutting off their streams. 

The reason? The platform said it couldn’t recognize the language they were speaking: Cantonese. Livestreamers posted screenshots of messages saying their shows were ended early as a result of their featuring “unrecognizable languages or texts.”

Cantonese-speaking streamers were frustrated by ByteDance’s decision. One streamer asked whether the decision was “discrimination against Cantonese people and the Cantonese language” in a video, according to the South China Morning Post.

ByteDance did not immediately respond to Fortune’s request for comment.

Douyin has been accused of suppressing Cantonese content before. In 2020, users complained that the app encouraged Cantonese speakers to produce content in Mandarin, reported the South China Morning Post. ByteDance at the time said it was committed to improving its moderation capabilities in languages other than Mandarin, with Cantonese being a priority.

The current dispute over Cantonese content comes as Beijing passes new rules on livestreaming, forcing platforms to pay closer attention to what performers are saying and doing on camera. 

More than just a dialect

Cantonese is a dialect of Chinese spoken by approximately 85 million people, primarily in Guangdong province and the semiautonomous cities of Hong Kong and Macau, but also in diaspora communities around the world. Despite being officially considered a dialect, Cantonese has large differences in pronunciation and grammar from Mandarin, meaning those fluent in both are effectively bilingual.

Cantonese is still widely spoken in southern China, despite official efforts to promote Mandarin. In 2010, local officials backtracked on plans to increase Mandarin-language television programming after Cantonese speakers protested. 

More recently, Chinese users have used Cantonese slang to evade censorship when complaining about China’s COVID rules, according to Quartz

Cantonese is also widely used in Hong Kong, with government officials and civil servants using the dialect over Mandarin. The city has a strong cultural industry as well, producing Cantonese-language movies, television shows, and music. 

Hong Kong’s cultural prominence has declined relative to mainland China in recent years, leading to concerns about the future for both Cantonese pop culture, and the southern Chinese dialect more broadly. Yet Cantonese pop culture has experienced a mini-revival in recent years, especially in Canto-pop, the local music genre, driven by stars like boy band Mirror. 

“Cantonese has never been stronger in Hong Kong,” Lau Chaak-ming, a professor of linguistics at the Education University of Hong Kong, told the Associated Press last week. 

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