Censors Keep Mainland in the Dark About HK Protests

As pro-democracy student protests continue to unfold in Hong Kong, Chinese authorities are ramping up censorship to stop news of the unrest from spreading on the mainland. The Los Angeles Times reports:

Striking photos, videos and news about ’s ongoing democracy protests and clashes with police have exploded across TV, radio, newspapers worldwide in recent days, to say nothing of Twitter, Facebook and other sites. 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.

Major state-run news outlets carried only brief mentions of the confrontations, if any, and the subject has been censored off popular mainland-based social media services, including and Weixin, also known as .

[…] On the Chinese-language homepage of the official New China News Agency and the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, there was not a single story mentioning the protests in Hong Kong. Front pages of the usually liberal Beijing News and Southern Metropolis Daily have been filled with two unrelated stories: One about a directive from the State Council on government meetings; another on the extradition of a corrupted official, as part the government’s efforts to showcase the success of its anti-graft campaign. [Source]

China Media Project’s David Bandurski notes the appearance of two Xinhua reports that have been republished elsewhere; one “woefully [out]dated,” and the other containing “patent falsehoods — the result either of consummately poor reporting or willful distortion of the truth.” Similarly, The Guardian’s Jonathan Kaiman reports that one state-controlled mainland TV channel aired misleading images showing people gathered to support the Chinese government:

On Sunday night, tens of thousands of protesters throughout Hong Kong faced down teargas and baton charges, but the state-controlled broadcaster Dragon TV did not show these images. Instead, it 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.

The broadcast showed a crowd of people waving Chinese flags to celebrate the upcoming 65th anniversary of country-wide 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.”

[…] “The Communist party is very clear that if the general election were to indeed happen in Hong Kong, people from many places in the mainland would want the same thing,” said Hu Jia, a prominent activist in Beijing. “What Hong Kongers have been doing – the student strike, public voting, protesting, and occupying the central city – could definitely inspire a lot of people in China.” [Source]

On Sunday night, Instagram joined the list of social media services blocked in mainland China as users shared images of the tear-gas-filled streets of downtown Hong Kong. From The Washington Post:

No more sepia-tinged phone pics of your latest meal in Shanghai or, perhaps more significant to Chinese censors’ minds, no more shots of Hong Kong officers in riot gear unloading canisters of pepper spray and tear gas into the faces of Hong Kong’s largely peaceful demonstrators.

[…] The protesters’ clashes with police Sunday night and into the wee hours of Monday were accompanied by a barrage of hashtags: #hk, #hongkong, etc.#Occupycentral, a rallying cry for democracy activists of late, had 9,103 posts as of Monday afternoon. So when the service turned off within hours of protesters getting tear-gassed, many users assumed Monday that Chinese censors had decided it was not in their interest to let pictures circulate of Chinese residents standing up en masse to local authorities. [Source]

To maintain the flow of information, many protesters have turned to FireChat, an instant messaging app that works locally over Bluetooth without the need for an Internet connection. From The New York Times: 

Amid swelling pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, protesters are turning to FireChat, a new app that allows them to send messages without a cellular or Internet connection.

[…] Introduced in March, FireChat makes use of a cellphone’s radio and Bluetooth communications to create a network between phones close to one another — up to about 80 yards — without connecting to the Internet. If a cellular signal or wireless network is available, the app uses that.

In 24 hours starting on Sunday afternoon, the app, which allows users to host public chat rooms, added 100,000 users in Hong Kong, and usage in the city peaked on Sunday night at 33,000 simultaneous users, according to Open Garden, the San Francisco company that distributes the app. [Source]

Meanwhile, Offbeat China suggested that the protests show how censorship has eroded Weibo’s position as an online “public square”, as activity continues to shift to the more private WeChat:

“Tonight, Weibo is for Paris, Wechat is for Hong Kong.” One prominent account on Weibo commented on Sunday night. While posting pictures of fashion shows in Paris on Weibo, she was sharing, on Wechat, pictures of tear gas filled streets in Hong Kong.

Wechat, as a messaging tool, acts more like a hybrid of Whatsapp and Facebook – one can chat with and get status updates from only those who follow back. It’s exactly such closed and personal networks that make Wechat a safe net for discussing sensitive topics in China. On one hand, such personal communications are much more difficult to censor by keywords, like on Weibo. On the other, commenting within an enclosed personal circle gives users a sense of security – someone who isn’t willing to share Hong Kong protest pictures on Weibo, a public platform, may be OK with sharing with a couple close friends on Wechat, a private network. [Source]

At CNN, Wilfred Chan looks at the important role that information technology has played in facilitating the protest movement in Hong Kong:

It’s a high-tech response to a high-stress situation. Armed with top-of-the-line phones on some of the world’s fastest mobile networks, Hong Kong’s young protesters are able to organize themselves at a lightning pace older generations of activists could have only dreamed of.

“The Internet is a critical reason these protests have exploded so quickly and so out of control,” says Li. “We all want instant news, and people are very unsettled.”

[…] Just before the clock struck midnight Sunday, at least 1,000 protesters — many heeding messages that had been posted online just minutes before — suddenly flooded the main road in Hong Kong’s Mong Kok shopping district, leaving police surprised and outnumbered.

[…] The police seemed unable to respond, and withdrew from the scene. Along with many other parts of Hong Kong, Mong Kok remains occupied with protesters Monday evening. [Source]

In spite of everything, Christina Larson reports at Bloomberg Businessweek that many people interviewed in Beijing were aware of the unfolding events in Hong Kong. Views of the protests varied widely:

Within mainland China, 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 Hong Kongers, 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.

[…] One journalist at a state-run newspaper in a southern Chinese city said she was not allowed to report on the , yet was avidly discussing events with her peers. “We are talking about what is real freedom,” and whether they would join in similar demonstrations, even in the face of baton-wielding cops. “A friend of mine said he is so proud of them [the protesters]. … Another friend says the chaos in Hong Kong makes him treasure what we have today,” meaning apparent safety and stability. She said they were all reminded, darkly, of the 1989 crackdown, which, despite being erased from Chinese history books, most knew a bit about: “My father and uncles told me [about it].” [Source]