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GUANGZHOU, China/SHANGHAI, China (Reuters) - From the remote mountains of Tibet to the soaring skyscrapers of Shanghai and Guangzhou, an unlikely issue has emerged to both anger and unite China's disparate peoples -- their language.
The country's 1.3 billion people may be almost all exclusively educated in one tongue, the official medium of Mandarin, but decades of its promotion has failed to stifle popular attachment to regional vernaculars and dialects.
The banishing or planned banishment from the airwaves and classrooms of languages such as Cantonese, Shanghainese and Tibetan has sparked rare public protests, as people push back against a government with little time for cultural diversity.
At a rally in the booming southern city of Guangzhou in late July, protesters thronged against police and shouted obscenities, demanding the protection of their mother tongue, Cantonese.
"The protesters were very united. We all had just one aim: to protect our own language," said Michelle, one of the self-proclaimed "cultural defenders" at the rally who asked her full name not be used because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Protests against cornerstones of government policy are rare
in a country where the ruling Communist Party values stability above all and comes down hard on dissent.
"Cantonese people speak Cantonese!" many yelled, in a surprisingly venomous retort to authorities, and a passionate defense of culture that caught officials -- more accustomed to simmering unrest over issues like land grabs, corruption and pollution -- off guard.
A subsequent protest, organized via an online campaign and buzzing chatrooms was soon smothered by police and Internet censors in a sign of unease by the Party at any challenge to its rule.
Still, the government did back down slightly, promising that Cantonese broadcasting would continue in Guangzhou, making it one of the few places in China where state-run radio and television make wide use of the vernacular.
Only about half of China's 1.3 billion people speak Mandarin, according to government surveys. Visit the vast and poor countryside and the chances of hearing pure Mandarin spoken as an everyday language are practically nil.
Throughout China's long and turbulent history, the nation's emperors and rulers have been driven by a desire to unite the country and to standardize speech as a powerful policy lever.
Diversity hasn't been a priority for Beijing when seen in this context, and critics sometimes say Beijing's pro-Mandarin policies can amount to cultural intimidation.
In October, ethnic Tibetan students took to the streets in the western province of Qinghai to protest against what they view as the marginalization of Tibetan in the education system in favor of Mandarin.
The requirement of Mandarin to succeed professionally in China has forced many young Tibetans and others to prioritize Mandarin over their mother tongues.
While such pockets of linguistic angst across China almost certainly won't snowball into broader unrest, continued erosion of language variety could feed deeper-rooted resentment given the centrality of speech to cultures.
"It's really a worry for us, because we've seen the cultures of other ethnic minorities, including the Tibetans, slowly fade and become assimilated. If Beijing can persuade the next generation of kids to use Mandarin, then they've succeeded to an extent," said Hong Kong-based activist Choi Suk-fong who helped organized protect Cantonese protests in the financial hub.
Cantonese does at least have a powerful backer in Hong Kong's popular Cantopop music and film culture. Many young Chinese can sing in Cantonese at karaoke without being able to speak a word.
Part of the problem in Guangzhou is that growth over the last few decades has bought an influx of non-Cantonese speakers, leading many to feel alienated in their own city.
That's a situation many in glitzy Shanghai feel keenly, where it is not unusual to find shops run by migrants with signs in their windows asking customers to speak Mandarin.
In Shanghai, the demise of the sing-song vernacular has led to calls for a rethink of China's monolithic language policies.
"I think we need to loosen the city's language environment," said Qian Nairong, 65, a professor and author of a dictionary on the Shanghainese language.
"Children should be allowed to speak their mother tongue from when they are small," Qian told Reuters.
Traditionally fiercely protective of its culture and language, Shanghai residents have a snooty reputation for often refusing to converse in anything but "Shanghai hua."
The noticeable drop in Shanghainese speakers has stoked anger and concern that the language may fade within a generation or two, unless measures are taken to reverse the decline.
A television clip posted on Ku6.com, a Chinese lifestyle website, ignited a debate after it showed Shanghainese children unable to string together basic words.
There is no official support for Shanghainese, which the government terms a dialect though is technically a separate language with its own grammar and vocabulary.
Nervous officials could perhaps look across the water at self-ruled and democratic Taiwan for a taste of how languages can co-exist.
After the defeated Nationalists were driven into exile to Taiwan following the Chinese civil war, the promotion of Mandarin was upheld as a pillar of unity and link to the motherland.
Taiwan's dominant Hokkien dialect -- also spoken in China's coastal Fujian province and parts of Southeast Asia including Singapore -- was repressed by the Nationalists and children could be beaten for speaking it at school.
Yet in the 1990s its usage surged again after democracy took root. Politicians now speak Hokkien as much as Mandarin and Hokkien soap operas are a mainstay on Taiwan television.
"You restrict a language for so long then when it's suddenly OK, it becomes excessively popular," said Hsu Yung-ming, a political scientist at Soochow University in Taipei. "It has always been the dominant language."
In Shanghai, however, even with a growing middle class that is becoming more confident and vocal, there has been no sign of language-related unrest, something put down by some to a traditional reluctance to get involved in politics.
"People don't have time to safeguard the Shanghainese dialect," bemoaned Shanghai born Miao, a smartly dressed young banker, shrugging her shoulders. "Shanghainese needs more than the effort we're currently seeing if it is to survive."
Additional reporting by Ralph Jennings in Taipei; Editing by Ben Blanchard