Hong Kong protests: A look from inside and outside China’s Great Firewall
China’s global information battle meets challenges outside of its borders
Browsing Weibo and Douyin -- the Chinese version of TikTok -- on a day of protests in Hong Kong, you might see patriotic crowds singing the Chinese national anthem in malls, black-clad mobs attacking unarmed citizens on urban streets, and clips of protesters mocked by strangers for covering their faces and being forcefully unmasked.
Propagated by state-run media platforms and web users alike, these digital messages paint a distinct picture: Protesters in the former British colony, who have been out on the streets for more than 100 days, are violent rabble-rousers wreaking havoc on the community and deserve to be punished.
The Great Firewall -- Beijing’s stringent system of online censorship that restricts citizens’ access to any information deemed inappropriate -- has been in place for years now. Thanks to the blockade of foreign platforms like Facebook and Google, China has maintained strict control over opinions voiced at home.
Social platforms on the mainland regularly censor keywords that are deemed politically sensitive. A search on Weibo for “Add Oil Hong Kong” -- a Chinese exclamation of encouragement and support popular with protesters -- reveals a message that says the search results aren’t displayed because of “relevant laws and policies.”
But the power afforded by an enclosed internet immediately shows its limits outside the confines of the wall.
Geographically, mainland China and the special administrative region of Hong Kong are separated only by a short border. Digitally, the two places are worlds apart.
Hong Kong is one of only two places in China with unfettered internet access, the other being its neighbor and former Portuguese colony Macau. That freedom has helped give rise to one of the largest protests in the city’s history -- a unique occurence that has seen no equivalent in the rest of the country since 1989’s Tiananmen crackdown. With the help of smartphone apps ranging from Telegram and WhatsApp to Tinder and Pokémon Go -- all of which are blocked in China -- the movement has spread wider than the Occupy protest in 2014.
Five years ago, activists primarily clogged major highways in the city’s central business district. This time around, protests have sprung up throughout the city, unfurling in both glitzy shopping districts and normally quiet residential neighborhoods -- all this, thanks partly to the quick circulation of online leaflets and live streams of protests.
Telegram and LIHKG, a Reddit-like discussion forum in Hong Kong, reveal a starkly different discourse compared with mainland social platforms. On a recent protest day, threads showed real-time advice on escape routes for those surrounded by police, and there are ongoing suggestions as to what people can do to keep the movement alive. Examples: Buy at shops that support the protest, or join in shouting out protest slogans from home at 10pm everyday.
Stripped of its censorship powers on the free internet, China has nonetheless sought to influence the global dialogue about Hong Kong.
It’s a strategy that can be traced back to 2014, when President Xi Jinping called on the country to “give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s message to the world.” Since then, Xinhua -- the main Chinese state media agency -- has expanded its reach to 170 foreign bureaus, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank. The outlet, along with China Daily and CCTV, maintains an active presence on Facebook and other global social platforms.
Despite the overseas expansion, state media doesn’t appear to have tweaked their rhetoric. As George Washington University professor David Shambaugh put it, “They basically have taken their domestic propaganda template and tried to go global with it.”
But while it’s found wide support from companies and citizens at home, Chinese state media has encountered a far more challenging online environment outside.
In China, internet companies are tasked with keeping conversations on their platforms in line with government values. Twitter and Facebook, on the other hand, have suspended thousands of accounts and pages accused of being part of a Chinese state-backed campaign to spread disinformation and sow discord in Hong Kong. YouTube now labels videos from state-run media for Hong Kong-based viewers, an expansion of a feature already added for several other countries and regions.
State media outlets remaining on Western social platforms draw questions and ridicule from international users. One recent post from China Daily accused Hong Kong protesters of plotting terror attacks, citing an anonymous message in a Telegram channel. Attached was a picture showing New York’s Twin Towers during the September 11 attack. Comments on the post were overwhelmingly negative.
“Doing propaganda is one thing, using a picture of a tragedy to spread a rumor with no basis is another,” wrote one user.
But even as a large part of the international audience refuses to be persuaded by China’s narrative, Chinese netizens stand out as staunch critics of what they call Twitter and Facebook’s “political decision” to shut down accounts.
“This is definitely a double standard. They are suppressing normal speech in the name of freedom -- the irony!” one person commented on Weibo, according to the South China Morning Post. “Turns out, the mainland is more transparent than this. They only block information that is bad for us.”
For now, it looks like China still has trouble convincing those outside the Great Firewall to see the country the way it wants to be seen. But Hong Kongers, who still enjoy freedom of online access and expression that is denied to mainlanders, remain well aware that their liberty ends right at the border.
Some Hong Kong residents have reported having their smartphones checked by Chinese immigration officers when crossing the border into Shenzhen. Photos and private messages were checked, several people said, and some were asked if they had taken part in protests.
The bigger fear is that Hong Kong's internet could be under threat. Last month, the city’s embattled leader said she would consider all laws to quell violent protests, including those granting her emergency powers -- a move that would give her administration a broad range of powers, including suppression of publications and communications.
The possibility already faces opposition from her own cabinet, but it’s enough to trigger immediate warnings from tech workers.
“Imposing any insensible restrictions on the open Internet would only result in more restrictions, as the original restrictions wouldn’t be effective, and ultimately the result is putting Hong Kong’s internet behind a big firewall,” wrote the Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association. “Therefore, any such restrictions, however slight originally, would start the end of the open internet of Hong Kong.”