Mainland’s digital Iron Curtain is good for Hong Kong

August 08, 2019 08:00
Border officials see to it that pictures and news reports about the months' long protests in Hong Kong do not reach the Chinese population, except those approved by mainland censors. Photo: Xinhua

On July 30, a Hong Kong company driver entered the Lo Wu border gate on his way to Shenzhen. Three police officers accosted him, ordered him to reveal the password on his mobile phone, opened the device and found 14 pictures of a protest march.

They detained him for six hours, asked if he had taken part in the mass protests against the extradition bill, and obtained his home address and company name. They also took his fingerprints and DNA. 

The man was terrified by the ordeal, even after his release. This story has been widely reported in the local press.

This is part of an enormous campaign, involving thousands of police and costing millions of yuan, to prevent the 1.4 billion people on the mainland to learn about the protests that have been going on for the past two months in Hong Kong. Hundreds of well-trained cyber censors trawl the internet to remove “offensive” content.

The only coverage allowed in the official media is that approved by the authorities in Beijing. It shows the attacks on the Legislative Council and the Liaison Office and violence by protestors but does not explain the background. It blames “foreign forces” from the United States, Britain and Taiwan, without explaining what those countries would gain by provoking unrest in Hong Kong.

This campaign has been largely successful. “I and my mainland friends and colleagues live in different universes,” said a British resident of Beijing. “No-one speaks of the protests. They do not know of them and are not interested. I do not mention them for fear of causing an argument.”

In the age of instant communications, this is an astonishing achievement, especially when the Chinese are among the most tech-savvy people in the world. Many never use cash; they do all their payments and banking on the mobile phone.

The priority for Beijing is to prevent the protests – especially the idea that people have a right to challenge the government by public protest – spreading into the mainland.

Every year city and rural governments there face thousands of protests, usually over confiscation of land, demolition of buildings and inadequate compensation, construction of petrochemical, waste disposal and other polluting factories close to residential areas, and corruption by local officials. Such protests are not legal and are broken up rapidly by the paramilitary People’s Armed Police, often violently; they are on 24-hour standby in cities all over China throughout the year and are aided by the world’s most sophisticated surveillance technology.

Those who organize and take part in the protests know they risk arrest, prison, losing their job and other penalties. Is it worth the risk?

For any mainland city leader or party secretary, “preserving social stability” (維稳) is the top priority, above meeting economic, environmental or population targets. He will never be dismissed for being too harsh on protests – only if they last too long, spiral out of control and are reported by media outside the mainland.

So far as we can tell, Beijing’s management of “social stability” has worked, at an enormous cost in terms of money, manpower and resources. It has prevented large-scale protests that threaten the rule of the government.

That is why the police and customs at posts that border Hong Kong are so vigilant. For years, they have confiscated from travelers newspapers, books, magazines and other “unapproved” materials.

But the threat this time is unprecedented since 1997. The number and scale of the protests have eclipsed the Umbrella Movement in 2014. The protests have been extensively covered by Hong Kong, Taiwan and global media and websites. This explains the aggressive treatment of the driver and others caught with images of the protests.

For him and the others, it was a fearful experience. But for Hong Kong as a whole, this digital “Iron Curtain” is a blessing. While the protests are contained here and do not "contaminate" the mainland, the government in Beijing can be more tolerant.

This can be an issue to be resolved between the SAR government and its people. Hong Kong is governed by different rules to the rest of China, under the system of “one country, two systems”. If people in the mainland do not know what is going on, Beijing does not feel so threatened.

If people in Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Beijing could follow live broadcasts of the protests, then the government’s response would be much quicker and harsher, and might involve the People's Liberation Army.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.