Recently, Buzzfeed, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and several other major technology companies released public statements announcing the removal of multiple user accounts backed by the Chinese government. Reddit – a platform that has become the ultimate virtual destination for Hong Kong protest updates – was also suspected to be crawling with Chinese bots.
Beijing’s efforts to control information on international social media outlets aligns with the government’s censorship practices within China. During the early phases of the protests, news on Hong Kong affairs rarely reached media platforms of the mainland. To suppress such news, Beijing censored the phrase Hong Kong on all Chinese platforms for several weeks.
However, some bloggers and media outlets circumvented this restriction by referring to the island as the “Pearl of the Orient.” And as the longevity and severity of the protests grew, hiding news of the demonstrations from the Chinese public grew increasingly difficult.
Now, the demonstrations dominate headlines around the world, creating a need for an ostensibly surprised Beijing to take control over the story in new ways.
Years of preparation to control world news
It is estimated that over the past ten years, Beijing has spent US $6.6 billion to expand its media presence, in an effort to gain a foothold in the global media mix. This investment might have been made in preparation to contain and control news coverage of events like the Hong Kong demonstrations.
On Baidu, the dominant Chinese search engine, Millennial Source researchers who searched “Hong Kong protests” in English were greeted with a mixture of international media sources.
However, if the same search item is entered in Chinese, the top search results are all Chinese news outlets that either paint the protesters as violent rioters or downplay the severity of the ongoing demonstrations. Several sources even claimed that the Hong Kong demonstrators are protesting against US – not Chinese – interference on the island.
When the same search was conducted in Chinese on Google, the results were starkly different.
A reporter who works for China’s state-run GuangZhou Daily told InkStone news, “On reports about Hong Kong, we are under strict orders to use copy provided by state media like Xinhua or CCTV, and we can only carry official statements released by official departments.”
On WeChat, the primary mainland communication platform, users outside the mainland are able to share photos as well as comments and posts. Within mainland borders, however, these posts aren’t visible or accessible.
Aside from accusing foreign governments of interfering and meddling in Hong Kong affairs, Beijing has also framed stories of the protests to reflect poorly on the participants. Many Chinese reports have accused the protesters of violence, resulting in injuries to police officers and innocent bystanders.
Some Hong Kong protesters have engaged in aggressive actions, but these incidents have been rare. One such incident occurred during the recent airport protests, which led to airport operations being halted for two consecutive days. Two Chinese men, one believed to be an undercover mainland police officer, were tormented, beaten and cable tied for several hours by protesters.
While the incident was covered by media outlets worldwide, it received significantly greater emphasis on Chinese news channel CGTN.
The next day, many protesters stood contrite, displaying signs expressing their regret over the previous day’s violent behavior.
However, these apologies were not covered by CGTN.
The importance of terminology and Article 14 of the Garrison Law
Under Article 14 of the Garrison Law, if the local Hong Kong government requests military assistance, Beijing “…shall send out troops to carry out the task of assistance in maintenance of public order and in disaster relief according to the order from the Central Military Commission, and the troops shall immediately return to their station after the task has been accomplished.”
The provision explicitly permits Beijing to send garrisons into Hong Kong at the request of the local government, but does not speak to the possibility of dispatching forces to the island under other circumstances. During the course of the current demonstrations, Beijing has released two pieces of propaganda showing military on the island, perhaps in an attempt to instill fear in the protesters.
In late July, a large army congregation at the China-Hong Kong border sparked international angst, as foreign governments waited to see what would follow. While state media claimed that the troop movements were part of previously scheduled military training, and unconnected to the unrest in Hong Kong, many remain skeptical of these statements.
On the 29th of August, Hong Kongers rallied against alleged sexual assault by local police officers. As the demonstration progressed, Chinese state media again shared pictures and footage of the military approaching Hong Kong. A boat was also seen carrying soldiers into the city.
In several press conferences, Beijing has repeatedly stressed the violence of the protests, labelling the airport incident as an “act of terrorism”.
Focusing on acts of violence on the island during press conferences might be a way for Beijing to establish a basis for future military action. A decision to send troops onto the island within the Garrison framework would be easier to justify if it were presented as a response to terrorist acts.
Bonus: What do some Chinese citizens in rural China say about the whole situation?
Our journalists spoke to several mainlanders in rural Southeast China, all of whom were aware of the protests and the extradition law that originally sparked them.
“I don’t understand what they’re thinking,” said Wang YuXing of the protesters. “It’s just unnecessary – now everyone is on holiday here in China, and we would have liked to go to Hong Kong, but now no one wants to go. It’s just unnecessary. They need to be more aware of their behavior.”