29 January 2020
The world is watching developments in Hong Kong but most mainland Chinese have no idea what is going on across the border thanks to the censors. Photos: Bloomberg, The World Post
The world is watching developments in Hong Kong but most mainland Chinese have no idea what is going on across the border thanks to the censors. Photos: Bloomberg, The World Post

China censors Hong Kong’s ‘Umbrella Revolution’

China’s censors have been working overtime in recent days to keep the lid on news of massive street demonstrations in Hong Kong.

Striking photos, videos and news about Hong Kong’s ongoing democracy protests and clashes with police have exploded across TV, radio and newspapers worldwide, to say nothing of Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites, the Los Angeles Times reported.

But thanks to a near-complete information blackout by Chinese censors, most people in mainland China remain unaware of the situation in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.

A directive from the central propaganda department in Beijing ordered websites to delete any mention of the unrest, according to the New York Times. The mainland news websites that did discuss the protests mostly posted a short article from Xinhua, the state news agency, that gave few details of what was unfolding down south.

Spreading the word of unrest over Chinese social networks like Baidu’s Weibo and Tencent Holding’s WeChat became next to impossible as messages about the Hong Kong demonstrations were deleted almost as quickly as they were posted.

Foreign Policy reported that Sept. 28 was actually the most censored day of the year, more than doubling the censorship rate on June 4, the 25th anniversary of the crackdown on the Tiananmen student movement — an event “so meticulously censored in both traditional and social media that many of China’s younger generation are largely ignorant of the event.”

Censored results on Baidu, China’s largest search engine, were to be expected. Searches for “Occupy Central,” “Hong Kong protest,” or “Umbrella Revolution” resulted in irrelevant photos and links. Searches for “Hong Kong” give you restaurant reviews.

(Umbrellas used by protesters to shield themselves from pepper spray have become the most visible symbol in the campaign for a more democratic Hong Kong. According to many reports, riot police continue to seize and destroy as many as they can.)

Mainland censors also completely blocked the photo-sharing service Instagram after it was flooded with pictures of unrest.

So as not to hog all the “fun”, China called upon its propaganda crew as well, which dished out a stunning menu of disinformation.

Mainland broadcasters, for example, reported that tens of thousands of people had gathered in Hong Kong’s streets to celebrate National Day, yes, while showing tens of thousands of people gathered in Hong Kong streets peacefully assembled in support of democratic reform.

On Sunday night, instead of showing images of Hong Kong police lobbing teargas and making baton charges in an attempt to disperse crowds, state-controlled broadcaster Dragon TV “cheerfully” announced that 28 civil society groups had spent the weekend in Tamar Park voicing support for the central government’s decisions on the region’s political future.

According to The Guardian, the broadcast showed a crowd of people waving Chinese flags to celebrate the upcoming 65th anniversary of countrywide Communist party rule. “We all hope Hong Kong can be prosperous and stable,” said a young man wearing glasses and a red polo shirt. “I think the National People’s Congress’s decision can bring us a step closer to fulfilling our requirement for universal suffrage.”

In spite of the best efforts of the Chinese government to block information about unrest in Hong Kong from reaching the mainland, some people interviewed by Bloomberg Businessweek in Beijing and other Chinese cities knew about the demonstrations.

Most said they initially heard the news through social media, reading posts before censors deleted them.

According to Bloomberg, some said they were cheering on Hong Kong’s democracy activists and wished their Chinese peers had the same courage to fight for “freedom”.

Others wondered whether public demonstrations were futile and darkly recalled the brutal 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Still others said the yawning antagonism between mainlanders and Hongkongers, fueled by quarrels over the influx of mainland tourists and capital into the islands in recent years, meant they felt limited sympathy for Hong Kong’s struggles.

It’s too soon to predict the outcome of the Umbrella Revolution but it’s clear that Beijing is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The Wall Street Journal says President Xi faces tough choices: modify the proposed formula for Hong Kong’s election system and appear weak, or dislodge the protesters with force and risk conjuring memories of Beijing’s bloody 1989 pro-democracy crackdown in Tiananmen Square.

Either way, Xi is in a heap of trouble. To date, he has made no public comments on Hong Kong’s ongoing democracy protests.

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A strategist and marketing consultant on China business