Counterprotests, State Media Push Beijing’s Line on HK

Counterprotests, State Media Push Beijing’s Line on HK

Ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong against now-suspended extradition rules and aggressive policing of earlier protests have sparked additional rallies by Hong Kongers and foreign supporters overseas. These in turn have been met with counterprotests by overseas students and others from the mainland, backed by vocally supportive Chinese consular officials.

The latest round of confrontations took place in Australia on Friday. The Age’s Zach Hope described the largest such incident, outside the State Library in Melbourne:

Police appeared to be caught unaware by the scale of the protest and only intervened when pro-Chinese demonstrators surged towards the pro-Hong Kong side. By this time, scuffles had been breaking out for about 40 minutes.

[…] The number of pro-Chinese protesters surged throughout the evening and eventually outnumbered, and out-voiced, the pro-Hong Kong side.

[…] On the library side, they sang their national anthem, chanted in Mandarin and English for “one China” and let the protesters know they were “rubbish” and that “China is great”.

[…] Under the gaze of the statue of Sir Redmond Barry, Hong Kong protesters gathered on the north side of the library lawn, singing and chanting “free Hong Kong”.

A pro-China demonstrator yelled out “if you don’t like it, leave the country.”

Another yelled back “we’re in Australia.” [Source]

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that its crew were attacked by one pro-China counterprotester, and described other events around the country:

An ABC Television crew was attacked by one man who pushed a speaker on them.

[…] Meanwhile in Adelaide, between up to 80 pro-Hong Kong protesters visited the city campus of the University of South Australia on Friday afternoon.

The protest became quite heated when more than 100 pro-Chinese demonstrators arrived, one of them claiming a pro-Hong Kong protester had put a hand on a female member of their group.

Many supporters of China yelled, booed and hurled derogatory and sexist insults at the leaders of the pro-democracy movement as they spoke against Hong Kong’s controversial extradition treaty and police brutality

[…] The pro-Hong Kong protesters made it clear to their group that they did not want anyone leaving alone, because of fears pro-Chinese protesters would follow them home and threaten violence. [Source]

(China Media Project’s tweet refers to protesters’ assault of Fu Guohao, a reporter for the state-owned nationalist tabloid, at Hong Kong airport on Tuesday.)

The antagonism was not entirely one-sided, however:

A pro-China rally in Sydney was also held on Saturday. A fake permit letter for a similar event in Melbourne was circulated in Chinese-language Australian media earlier this week. From the Sydney event:

Macquarie University’s Kevin Carrico witnessed initially calm dialogue between Hong Kong and mainland students at another event at Monash University near Melbourne on August 6. Another group of mainland students later arrived, however, bringing “harassment and intimidation [which] laid bare the fundamental (and fundamentally flawed) logics of contemporary Chinese authoritarian nationalism on the global stage.” From Foreign Policy:

[…] Despite being the aggressors in this case, invading protesters’ personal space and menacingly shouting people down, the patriots perpetually framed themselves as victims. [… A]ccusations and pre-emptive self-victimization in turn provided cover for such blatantly threatening comments from the Chinese students as “We Chinese just want Hong Kong’s land, we don’t care about the people” and “We’ll upload video of this to Weibo, then see if you all are still alive tomorrow.”

[…] “We are all Chinese” is not a statement of solidarity but rather a threat to embrace a particular ideological line based not in reason but in imposed identity. While the Hong Kong students were the main targets for harassment, particularly venomous hatred was reserved for fellow Chinese who failed to adopt a suitably hostile stance. In a moment that highlighted the troubling intersection of authoritarian nationalism and sexism, one student from the province of Sichuan who was speaking with protesters rather than yelling at them was shouted down as a “Sichuan sister” who “needs to be reported to the consulate.” The assembled group of patriots laughed as this student shook her head and stared down at the ground. Images of this student continue to circulate on Chinese social media today, with threats to report her to the authorities “in every province.”

When discussing such unabashed nationalist thuggery, I am often asked whether I think the students were taking orders from the Chinese Consulate. Beijing has played a role in mobilizing student protesters abroad before, most notoriously in 2008. And its embassies in both Australia and New Zealand have in recent weeks voiced their support in Chinese-language postings for violent acts against peaceful protesters—I am certainly not about to give them the benefit of the doubt. Yet the assumption that such ignorant behavior is directly dictated by the consulate is not always correct. Sometimes it’s a comforting story that we tell ourselves to avoid reckoning with the real, violent nationalism enacted by some Chinese students. [Source]

Carrico went on to discuss appropriate responses by universities to actions such as threatening to or actually reporting fellow students to home-country authorities for their political views. Regarding consular involvement, he cited a May article from The Atlantic by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Zach Dorfman on Beijing’s orchestration of patriotic demonstrations along the route of the 2008 Olympic Torch relay:

These operations weren’t unique to San Francisco. Chinese embassies and consulates elsewhere are known to have bused in thousands of students from surrounding areas to participate in counterdemonstrations in London, Canberra, Paris, Nagano, and elsewhere, often providing signs and flags, helping them drown out pro-Tibetan or other groups. The South Korean government launched an investigation after well-equipped crowds of Chinese students appeared in Seoul, where they pelted anti-China activists with rocks in videos that went viral on YouTube—violence that a Chinese foreign-ministry spokesperson refused to condemn. Zhang Rongan, the head of a Chinese student organization in Australia known for close ties to Beijing, initially claimed that the Chinese embassy had provided support to help bring students from all over Australia to the relay. (Zhang later denied that the students had received any outside support.) In his book, Qiaowu: Extra-Territorial Policies for the Overseas Chinese, the researcher James Jiann Hua To writes that Chinese students were also warned not to participate in any anti-China activity.

[…] The global Chinese activism surrounding the relay was not just an expression of spontaneous national ardor, […] but also of the growing assertiveness of the Chinese security state. The demonstrations were far larger, better organized, and more ideologically uniform than they would have been without official direction. That Western observers were left discussing how dearly the Chinese people loved their country, rather than the scope and coercive reach of their government’s power, indicates how successful this influence campaign was. [Source]

Author and former China correspondent Louisa Lim, now based at the University of Melbourne’s Center for Advancing Journalism, discussed the current “mobilization” of overseas Chinese communities in a New York Times op-ed on Tuesday:

Chinese people living or studying overseas are [an] important audience for Beijing’s messaging. Their primary news diet is largely delivered via WeChat, a Chinese chat app where messages are subject to censorship, so they often still fall within Beijing’s propaganda orbit. Recent pictures of an American diplomat meeting two activists, Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, were used to bolster Beijing’s claims of hostile foreign forces backing the protests. On Tuesday, scenes of a Chinese state media worker being tied up at the airport and beaten by young protesters flooded Chinese social media, bolstering calls for Beijing to intervene militarily in Hong Kong.

Such messaging helps to mobilize Chinese communities, especially newly arrived migrants in Australia, Canada, the United States and elsewhere, to support the official line from Beijing. One website for a planned protest this weekend in Sydney asks Chinese to stand together against “rioting” in Hong Kong, which it said was causing discrimination against Chinese in Australia.

The battle over Hong Kong is, in effect, being exported, pitting overseas Chinese communities against each other. Over the past few weeks, “Lennon Walls,” covered in colorful Post-it notes expressing support for Hong Kong, have been torn down by supporters of Beijing from Auckland, New Zealand, to Vancouver, British Columbia, and from Hobart, Australia, to Harvard Square. After a violent tussle between pro-China and pro-Hong Kong students in late July at the University of Queensland in Australia, the Chinese consul-general in Brisbane, Xu Jie, issued a statement praising the “spontaneous patriotic behavior of Chinese students.” [Source]

ABC7’s Liz Kreutz reported on the ongoing battle over a Lennon Wall at UC Berkeley on Tuesday:

One of the Cal students who is behind the wall, and believes the Chinese government is encroaching on Hong Kong’s autonomy, says everyday students tear down the posts and she goes back and puts the notes back up.

“Why I’m here is to let the international world know and raise awareness for people who don’t know what’s happening in Hong Kong.” The student, who wears a mask and asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution by the Chinese government said, “And let them know what is the case of the police brutality happening in Hong Kong.”

As she was posting new flyers criticizing the Chinese government on Tuesday afternoon, a swam of Chinese students confronted her saying they disagree.

“Hong Kong is a part of China, it’s absolutely true,” Xiu Ming Hung, a Cal student from China, said. “And these people they use violence to beat the Hong Kong police.” [Source]

Similar activities by mainland Chinese have appeared online, as Quartz’s Jane Li reported late last month:

On Monday (July 22) night, hundreds of Chinese internet users flooded Facebook pages of two Hong Kong organizations— the Civil Human Rights Front, a major organizer of some of the city’s massive protests against an extradition bill that is now suspended, the Hong Kong National Front, a local political party—with thousands of comments. The organizer of the attack, Di Ba, announced (in Chinese) on social media platform Weibo that the aim of the campaign is to “support Hong Kong police and condemn some of the Hong Kong rioters for insulting the Chinese emblem.”

[…] Consisting mainly of Chinese people living overseas, as well as Chinese university students, Di Ba spun off from a fan page for a Chinese footballer on an internet forum called Tieba. It remains a secretive but highly organized group that reportedly has 20 million users across social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Weibo. As it did ahead of past attacks, the group announced on Weibo when it would launch this week’s attacks, and distributed customized emojis and slogans for the participants to use. These emojis are usually “reaction images” with trolling text on them, such as the one below.

[…] While the group denies having a relationship with the government, it has largely targeted people or organization not in line with Beijing’s official stance on political issues—jumping the firewall in April to troll pro-Uighur groups, for example. It has been lauded by state media People’s Daily. [Source]

Meanwhile, English-language state media are increasingly pushing similarly anti-protester and pro-police narratives abroad. From Simone McCarthy at South China Morning Post:

Some of the coverage by the international arms of Chinese state media – promoted largely through videos posted on major social media platforms – marks a significant shift in tone and content as they seek to push the message that foreign influences are at work and play up violent incidents.

Over the past decade the central government has spent an estimated US$6.6 billion expanding its international media presence as part of its efforts to make its voice heard abroad.

“The Chinese government has invested so much, and it’s just for these kinds of moments,” said Clayton Dube, director of the University of Southern California US-China Institute.

“They don’t want the situation in Hong Kong to be defined exclusively by [Western] news organisations.

[…] “This is some of the most direct coverage we’ve seen in terms of trying to counter a narrative,” said Sarah Cook, director of the China Media Bulletin, published by Freedom House, a democracy watchdog which is partially funded by the US government.

[…] Cook said such coverage “shows what they can do when they want to” and that while state media may have used a “bunch of fluff” to help build its international audience, when they “feel like they need it” the tone will shift. [Source]

A selection of state media Twitter posts can be found below. Twitter has attracted some criticism for allowing the use of its ad system to extend their reach:

Pinboard founder Maciej Cegłowski has been in Hong Kong, documenting his experiences of the protests on Twitter and in a highly recommended blog post.

Foreign Policy editor James Palmer, formerly at Global Times, commented on the likely effectiveness of China’s external propaganda on Hong Kong:

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Below are examples of official media messaging on Twitter:


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