Since late July, Beijing has worked to promote its own counternarrative against protesters in Hong Kong. By this account, encapsulated in a recent letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which sought to guide foreign media coverage, the movement is a foreign-backed assault on national sovereignty by a violently radical minority. At the same time, the central government has insistently stressed national unity against the purported threat. The national flag, dunked in Victoria Harbour by protesters, was said to have “1.4 billion protectors,” and a mainland reporter beaten as a suspected police infiltrator to have “1.4 billion family members.” People’s Daily warned purported foreign “black hands” that “the 1.4 billion Chinese are united as one barrier,” while Foreign Ministry spokespeople have repeatedly appealed to “the common will of 1.4 billion Chinese nationals” and “the” singular “attitude of the 1.4 billion Chinese on the situation in Hong Kong.”
Both information control and other factors including shifting attitudes toward Hong Kong over the longer term, inflamed by anti-mainlander prejudice displayed by some in the territory, have helped Beijing’s version of events win over many in mainland China. Some, though, have dissented. At Chinese Human Rights Defenders this week, Frances Eve highlighted the pressure brought to bear on mainland sympathizers with the protests, both by the authorities and more nationalist members of the public.
Many mainlanders who are supportive of Hong Kongers’ fight for democratic rights and exercise of freedom of expression have had their comments removed from the Internet, are threatened by police, and some have been taken away for speaking out. Others don’t publicly express their support after a fierce 2014 crackdown on mainlanders sharing information or supporting the Umbrella Movement ensnared over 100 people and led to several heavy prison sentences on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.”
In a totalitarian regime, simple acts of support can have severe consequences. On August 31, Beijing police formally arrested a netizen on charges of “picking quarrels” in part because of her tweets about Hong Kong. A Shandong netizen has been criminally detained for supporting the protests in a WeChat group. In June, activist Wei Xiaobing spent 15 days in administrative detention in Zhejiang after he shared one Facebook post and retweeted two tweets, including one that simply said “keep it up Hong Kong!” In Guangdong, a dissident that attended the protests was sent to administrative detention for 15 days and migrant workers sympathetic to the movement are being forced out of the province and losing their jobs.
[…] In cyberspace, the government has been removing commentary supportive of the Hong Kong protest movement and images and videos to prevent the flow of information to the mainland. Leaked government directives show the extensive censorship used to remove content, with supportive phrases like “keep it up Hong Kong,” certain songs, and images uploaded or shared from users all deleted and blocked. For the past year, police have waged a campaign to force activists and independent critics from Twitter, even though it’s blocked in China, reducing critical voices from the global Internet which it has flooded with a state-sponsored disinformation operation directed against Hong Kong. Nuanced opinions are drowned out.
[…] The Chinese government’s aggressive approach to detaining and threatening mainlanders for expressing an opinion contrary to the official line is also precisely why Hong Kongers began protesting the extradition bill. […] [Source]
The Guardian’s Lily Kuo reported last week on the arrest for subversion of three workers at an NGO with operational ties to Hong Kong amid heightened sensitivity over the protests.
The charge is unusually severe for a group that does not work on overtly political or sensitive issues. Changsha Funeng, a three-person large NGO founded in 2016, describes itself as a “public welfare organisation” advocating for the rights of vulnerable groups and government accountability through disclosure requests.
[… Co-founder Yang Zhanqing] said the group was not affiliated with the protests. On Twitter, Liu Yongze, one of the arrested staffers, retweeted a BBC article about the protests and a comment by another user that read: “Hong Kong people can only fight.” According to Yang, there was no indication the other two were in support of the protests.
Yang said the primary reason for the arrest appears to be the group’s funding, which he said did not violate any laws, but the Hong Kong protests may be another major factor.
“Hong Kong and the anti-extradition movement has had a great impact on the mainland, so there is tighter control on mainland. It’s possible they are arresting people more quickly and putting them under more severe charges,” he said. [Source]
At The Wall Street Journal late last month, Wenxin Fan interviewed mainland Chinese who had actually joined the protests in Hong Kong:
In more than a dozen interviews, these outliers said they value Hong Kong’s autonomy from Chinese control, especially when it comes to the city’s legal system and freedom of expression. They have joined marches, signed open online letters supporting Hong Kong and defended the movement in social-media battles against state-backed critics and misinformation.
Those actions put them at risk of detention by Chinese authorities, who are checking travelers’ smartphones at the border crossing to Shenzhen for evidence of participation in the demonstrations. Mainlanders living in Hong Kong have also experienced ostracism from friends back home who see the protesters as a violent fringe, especially after they beat up a pair of mainland citizens in a melee at the airport. The incident set off a wave of anger in China and a bout of soul-searching among the protesters.
[…] Betty Xu, a mainland citizen who has stayed on in Hong Kong since graduating from a local university this summer, has joined several protests and posted photos of them on the Chinese messaging service WeChat.
[…] The 22-year-old woman felt a wave of terror after seeing what happened to Chen Chun, a Shenzhen-based scholar who posted a photo of himself dressed in a mask and black T-shirt on his private WeChat timeline after joining a march in Hong Kong. Someone reposted the photo on the public messaging service Weibo, and it went viral—with him cast as villain. People labeled him a traitor and reported him to mainland police, who interrogated him late into the night, he said. [Source]
At ChinaFile last week, Kiki Zhao documented support for the Hong Kong protests on Chinese social media, arguing that widespread accounts of unified mainland public opinion “aren’t wholly inaccurate, but they also aren’t complete.”
Over the past two weeks, I have spent dozens of hours exploring reactions to the protests on Chinese social media. But instead of finding uniform antipathy for the Hong Kong protesters or support for the government’s reaction, I came across a range of opinion running the gamut from admiration to disdain, confusion, and even indifference.
[…] Some mainlanders have tried tirelessly to disseminate quality and informative articles from beyond the Great Fire Wall onto Chinese social media platforms. Netizens shared a series of articles written by the Hong Kong scholar Leung Kai Chi explaining Hong Kong’s relationship with mainland China. The 36 articles, totaling 130,000 words, were made into e-books and shared by at least tens of thousands of people in the mainland. Leung wrote in the foreward to the articles, titled First Lesson on Hong Kong, that he started writing the series eight years ago for mainland Chinese college students studying there. One Weibo post sharing Leung’s series garnered almost 9,000 reposts before it was taken down a few days later. And people continue to ask for links to it on Weibo.
[…] Two weeks ago, Chow Po-chung, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, published an essay on how Chinese state media have used misinformation to sway mainland public opinion. The essay, titled “To Mainland Friends: We Are Also Fighting for Freedom for You,” was censored on the mainland Internet. But people on Weibo have stubbornly continued to repost it every time it is deleted.
[…] These are but a few examples of the expressions of sentiment diverging from the official line. There are many more: one asks whether people in the mainland remember how much money those in Hong Kong donated to relief efforts after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake; another recounts discrimination directed at mainlanders on Cathy Pacific flights; another responds with sarcasm to state media reports extolling the battered Global Times journalist as a hero, noting how many mainland Chinese journalists have been arrested and beaten up by mainland police when reporting in their own country; still others are sharing a 1993 article by historian Elizabeth Perry (translated into Chinese) about the Red Guards’ use of vulgar insults during the Cultural Revolution. [Source]
At The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog last month, the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Fang Kecheng also discussed mainlanders’ efforts to counter the Party line:
Despite the dominance of the official narrative, some people in China are trying to fact-check popular articles and provide a more comprehensive picture of the movement. For example, they debunked Chinese news reports that Hong Kong protesters had broken the finger of a police officer with pliers. They also write long articles to explain the real factors behind the protests.
Chinese propaganda authorities censor these articles heavily. In recent weeks, they deleted some accounts that posted these types of articles. But these fact-checking articles manage to reach a certain population in China, largely through private and group sharing networks.
Reading a fact-checking article does not guarantee the reader will reject the official narrative, however. Studies in the United States have found political identity influences how one perceives the credibility of fact-checkers. Just as Republicans may be reluctant to accept a fact-checking article that is advantageous to the Democratic Party, Chinese readers with strong nationalist inclinations are likely to rebut an article that suggests Hong Kong protesters are not as violent as the Chinese media portray.
Similarly, a number of Chinese students studying abroad have chosen to trust Beijing’s narrative, despite access to multiple uncensored information sources. They have recently rallied in Sydney, London, and other cities around the world to support Beijing, and clashed with Hong Kong activists. Prior research suggests the strong nationalistic sentiments of Chinese students are partly driven by the concern that any criticism targeted at their government could also hurt the Chinese people. [Source]
In an interview with Émilie Frenkiel at Books and Ideas, Leiden University’s Florian Schneider (author of “China’s Digital Nationalism“) discussed the pressure on pro-protest Chinese voices both in and outside China, as well as the context for fiercely anti-protest Chinese voices abroad.
F.S.: The discussions about the Hong Kong protests on Chinese social media platforms like Sina Weibo  are deeply disturbing examples of digital nationalism. By deploying familiar categories like ‘territorial integrity’ and ‘traitors’, nationalist commentators have taken hold of the discussion in ways that make it almost impossible to deviate from nationalist scripts. The aggressive tone of the discussion is already intimidating, but the fact that online users have gone on to ‘dox’ offenders of the nationalist mainstream narrative and promote online vigilantism against perceived ‘traitors’ has only further contributed to a very narrow discursive space. In all of this, the official media has repeatedly sanctioned the aggressive tone, and it has in many instances contributed to it. The official state broadcaster Chinese Central Television (CCTV) frames the Hong Kong protesters as terrorists and even as fascists, creating spurious analogies with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, and this creates a strong sense of antagonism that is not only offensive but also unhelpful for coming to terms with the complexities in Hong Kong.
Books & Ideas: How do you interpret the struggle between pro-Hong Kong protesters vs. pro-China (pro-Hong Kong police) currently taking place on foreign campuses? What does it tell us of the nationalist feelings harboured by Chinese students when abroad? How about the wider international Chinese community?
F.S.: This is a complicated issue, and we should be careful not to generalise. There are so many overseas Chinese students, studying in diverse contexts, that it wouldn’t make sense to lump them all together and assume they share a singular nationalist agenda. [… T]here are plenty of Chinese students abroad who have more nuanced understandings, even if they must increasingly keep those understandings to themselves if they don’t want to risk repercussions at home. Meanwhile, we should also acknowledge that the aggressive nationalism on display among some Chinese student groups in, for instance, Australia is facilitated by the experience that those students have in their chosen place of study. […] I emphatically do not want to excuse the kind of aggressive Chinese nationalist behaviour that is now well-documented on video-sharing sites, but I would welcome a discussion that acknowledges how such behaviour is grounded in anxieties and resentments that can be the product of toxic nationalisms elsewhere. [Source]
Human Rights Watch’s Yaqiu Wang also examined the attitudes of overseas Chinese counterprotesters in a recent op-ed at The Los Angeles Times:
Studies show that overseas Chinese students — totaling around 1.5 million, including more than 300,000 in the United States —still rely on information from China’s heavily censored internet and media. That helps explain the fervor demonstrated by some of the anti-Hong Kong protesters. But it is deeper than that.
For those us who grew up in a system where information control is all-encompassing, processing ideas contrary to what we were taught and believed all our lives is not easy. It takes an innate curiosity, constant reading of uncensored information and self-reflective thinking — none of which are encouraged in China.
Unlearning untrue information and the beliefs it engenders can take a lifetime. I left China a decade ago, but today I still occasionally question the truthfulness of certain knowledge I have — because I learned it in school in China.
When Chinese students step outside of China to study, they are struggling to adapt to a new education system, and are frequently confronted — in class, in daily life, and online — with assumptions that they have been “brainwashed by the Chinese government.” It makes some feel attacked and reaffirms what they were taught in China: The West is biased and hostile. [Source]
The New York Times’ Isabella Kwai discussed the situation in Australia late last month:
[…] Recent clashes at universities and in major cities between those supporting the movement and those opposing it are raising questions inside the Chinese community — especially those that are not strongly nationalist — about how freely they can speak about Hong Kong.
Last weekend, Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, a former New York Times colleague in the Australia bureau, shared her reporting from a pro-China rally in Sydney on Twitter. She was there to observe, not protest, she said. But since then, she has received dozens of threatening messages on social platforms from LinkedIn to WeChat, including attempts to reveal her address.
“I always knew it was a job not safe to do, but I never expected so much pressure in Australia,” she said, adding that it has worsened in recent weeks. Because the trolling happens in a foreign language, she said, “they seem to think that means they have more space to get away with it.”
Fear of such attacks — and of the consequences of speaking out for family members who remain in China — is keeping others here quiet. A few Chinese students I spoke to who disagree with the tenor of pro-China protests, or simply want to learn more, would only speak on the condition of anonymity, saying they needed to protect themselves and their families. [Source]
See more on doxxing and other intimidation from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Similar pressures have also been reported in Canada, as South China Morning Post’s Ian Young highlighted this week after a series of protests and counterprotests in Vancouver:
Fears of surveillance – both state and freelance – are endemic among those in Vancouver who support the Hong Kong protests. Media at the rally on Saturday were told not to show demonstrators’ uncovered faces – a futile request, considering that they were engaged in political behaviour, in a public place.
[…] Both sides in Vancouver have shared photos of each other on social media.
But the pro-protest camp fears more than just being doxxed. They fear being flagged by the Chinese state.
[…] The Chinese Consulate-General in Vancouver did not immediately respond to questions about whether it was monitoring Hong Kong protesters, or was in contact with the counterprotesters.
[…] On August 23, Consul-General Tong Xiaoling published a statement in Ming Pao newspaper, praising counterprotesters in British Columbia who targeted the “sin of Hong Kong independence”. [Source]
A more mundane issue for Chinese who support the protesters’ cause is discussing the issue with less sympathetic relatives. This was the focus of a recent edition of the Chinese Storytellers collective’s newsletter, introduced by Afra Wang:
“Protect yourself. Safety first. Absolutely no protest. And please delete your most recent posts on WeChat.” This was not the first time that my mom warned me for “good causes” during our video chat.
Overseas young Chinese face unique obstacles in communicating with parents in China. Media censorship, cultural and generational gap, language differences and geographical distance have created two irreconcilable accounts of parallel reality for us and our family back home. Talking politics has become a particularly daunting task for many of us.
To add insult to injury, WeChat, the primary communication tool in China, is a fragile asset where surveillance is ubiquitously practiced. Links I wanted to share with my parents often are “page not found” in China. The articles they sent to me are full of clickbaits and fake news. [Source]
…..me trying very hard to deliver the blow by blow of the HK protests to my mainlander mother without detonating her fierce, fervent & merciless nationalism https://t.co/bOXIecnny5
— Jiayang Fan (@JiayangFan) August 15, 2019