With about 68 million native speakers, Cantonese is the second most widely spoken Chinese language. But if you’re trying to use it in a live stream on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, it might get you banned.

This is what happened to Nicolas Leung. His account received three 10-minute bans over the last three weeks accompanied by prompts to switch to Mandarin, China’s official language, while using Douyin’s live streaming function.

And he’s not the only one. Cantonese-speaking content creators have been expressing dissatisfaction over Douyin urging users to speak Putonghua, the Chinese word for Mandarin that literally means “common language.” This is despite the fact that the platform doesn’t appear to have any listed rules governing the use of different languages.

A Douyin user showing a system warning to switch to Mandarin, along with an instructional video on how to use Douyin Livestream that recommends using the national language. (Picture: Douyin)

Language has been a point of contention in the Cantonese-speaking southern province of Guangdong, where locals once went out into the streets to protest a proposal to have television broadcasters switch to Mandarin. Cantonese is also widely spoken in Hong Kong, which borders Guangdong.

According to Douyin owner ByteDance, the issue with live streaming isn’t about the language -- it’s about content. The company said in a statement that it’s “committed to building out moderation capabilities for additional languages” for Douyin Livestream, with Cantonese being a top priority.

China has strict content regulations scrutinizing everything from vulgarity and violence to criticism of the government. The company singled out pornography and hate speech as things it aims to protect users from in live streams.

News of Douyin’s Mandarin-only live streaming policy gained wide attention when Sixth Tone news editor David Paulk reported it on Twitter. The story was meant to be published by Sixth Tone, which is controlled by the state-owned company Shanghai United Media Group. But it was never published because, according to Paulk’s Twitter thread, the TikTok owner “went over [their] heads to get the [story] canned.”

Paulk didn’t elaborate on how this happened, and ByteDance did not respond to questions concerning Paulk’s allegation. But the company responded quickly to questions from Abacus concerning content moderation policies. The company said live streaming is a “newer feature,” which first rolled out quietly in early 2018.

Elliott Zaagman, co-host of China Tech Investor podcast, said that moderation issues could stem from the company’s fast growth.

“For any large platform, the demand for content moderation is very difficult to meet,” he said. But ByteDance also has to factor in China’s regulation of online content, which sets even higher demands for tech companies to fulfill. Still, Zaagman said not being able to moderate the country’s second most spoken language seems “ridiculous.”

ByteDance already ran afoul of regulators back in 2018 with its popular news platform Jinri Touitiao, which wound up being removed from app stores for three weeks. Its humor app Neihan Duanzu was banned entirely. The company’s founder was even compelled to issue a public apology for the company’s lax oversight, reminiscent of the “self-criticism” during the era under Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

ByteDance has also been under pressure outside of China over its content moderation policies, but for different reasons. Last September, reports from The Washington Post and The Guardian suggested TikTok was censoring content that displeases the Chinese government by banning politically sensitive topics and criticism of policies and rules of different countries.

ByteDance said that those moderation rules no longer apply and that the company adjusts its guidelines for different markets.

A screenshot from the Cantonese-speaking account Biu San Yut Yi shows Douyin issued a 10-minute ban and asked the account to switch to Mandarin. (Picture: Biu San Yut Yi/Douyin)

Since its brush with Chinese regulators, ByteDance has been building up its moderation capabilities. And so far, Douyin’s Cantonese speakers haven’t said anything about being unable to use the language in short videos, the app’s main form of content. But until Douyin’s “content safety capabilities” for live streaming are ready, prompts to switch to the country’s official language may continue.

But for some people, switching to Mandarin isn’t an option. Leung’s Douyin channel Biu San Yut Yi is dedicated specifically to Cantonese language, culture and history. The account now has more than 120,000 followers, but Leung doesn’t plan to change the language of his streaming sessions. There are other live streaming platforms available, he said.

“We express our regret and hope that Douyin can solve this problem as soon as possible, because every place’s language should be protected and nourished,” Leung said.