Long ago, in a world far, far away, rebellious media companies fought for approval from Big Brother China, courting Beijing to allow them to remain in the country.
Thirsty and hungry for new revenue from the Chinese market, they thought that rebelling for human rights was only for westerners in countries where their board members lived.
As the years went by, online communities grew stronger. China veered toward reactionary Leninism, slowly under Hu Jintao and rapidly under Xi Jinping.
Each time China’s ethnic periphery became restive or a homegrown dissident appeared, their use of social media would only confirm the worst fears of the regime.
Increasingly, the international media would be branded as rebels, one by one, but the crackdown would be pervasive.
Chinese websites were not spared, so were a number of their international peers. Finally, the Chinese censors caught up with online giants.
YouTube was banned in March 2009, and a few months later, Facebook and Picasa (a Google partner) went down during the Urumqi riots in July 2009, although Facebook already had been partially banned in 2008.
Google, in particular, tried very hard to remain in Beijing’s favor.
It tried to negotiate an agreement with China even after an apparent hacking of its servers in 2010 targeted information on Chinese dissidents.
But it would come to no avail.
Google Search was finally banned from China in May 2014. Yet, this was not the end repression in social media.
On Dec. 30, 2014, Facebook froze out Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) for “nudity” — that is, his artistic use of nudity (one picture of a naked man being arrested).
Coincidentally, this happened during a visit by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to China.
Did Zuckerberg, who made his fortune on free speech, capitulate to Beijing’s censors?
If so, what do we make of his decision to introduce more forms of expression?
Since Facebook expanded its “like” button, giving users more emoji choices for “love”, “haha”, “wow”, “sad” and “angry”, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has been targeted with negative responses.
Leung drew 50,000 “angry” emojis within a few hours of his post about a reception he hosted for the Hong Kong Employer’s Federation.
Three days later, the post had 2,800 “likes”, 118,000 “angry” and a smattering of mostly sad emojis, catching the attention of the international media.
Many netizens treat the “angry” emoji as a “dislike” button which Zuckerberg ruled out from the beginning because of its potential for abuse.
By contrast, Financial Secretary John Tsang, with his recent Budget of Reconciliation, is getting all the love on his own Facebook page, with each of his posts getting between a few hundred to a couple of thousand positive emojis.
The new Facebook innovation has turned social media into a kind of popularity contest, full of love and vicious anger.
How long will it last?
No doubt some unpopular figures in the Hong Kong and Beijing governments want Facebook to go back to the “like” button only.
But the company may be seeing an opportunity to drive traffic, and thus profit, in the expanded emojis.
In the end, social media companies that offer more forms of expression to their users will have to weigh their cost and benefit given their primarily western user base.
Yet, there is real concern that a free society like Hong Kong can continue to express itself.
Traditional control of media continues to fragment at an astounding pace and there is increasing likelihood that non-traditional entities such as state organs will dominate the internet.
We will still be able to have our say as long as the authorities allow it.
Until then, we can only be thankful for small blessings.
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